Michael Beyeler, the director of UC Santa Barbara’s Bionic Vision Lab and assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, was one of 103 people awarded the prestigious National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award in October 2022. He was awarded the grant for his project “Towards a Smart Bionic Eye: AI-Powered Artificial Vision for the Treatment of Incurable Blindness.”

Visual impairment affects nearly 20 million Americans and is one of the most prevalent disabilities worldwide. While some forms of visual impairment can be treated, many of the more serious forms, unfortunately, have no cure. In these cases, an electronic visual prosthesis may be the best and sometimes the only option. These “bionic eyes” are implanted directly into the patient’s eye or brain and can use electrical currents to stimulate their visual system’s surviving brain cells. 

However, despite patients reporting being able to see flashes of light when using these bionic eyes, often the most that can be seen with current artificial visual technology are blurry, black-and-white shapes. 

Beyeler and his team, however, are working to improve upon the existing technology in new, innovative ways.

The five-year, $1.5 million grant will enable Beyeler and his colleagues to research and answer the fundamental questions which could eventually make possible the development of a “smart bionic eye.” The eye, building upon current visual aid technology, would utilize artificial intelligence (AI) to identify potential obstacles and landmarks in order to better facilitate day-to-day movement for visually impaired users. 

“These devices can improve everyday life [and] can provide people with the visual cues that they need to perform their daily activities,” Beyeler said regarding the implications of this device. “Instead of focusing on one day restoring ‘natural’ vision, which is a noble but perhaps close-to-impossible task, we might be better off thinking about how to create ‘practical’ and ‘useful’ artificial vision now.”

And this is exactly what he and his team are trying to do. 

The “smart” in Beyeler’s “smart bionic eye” comes from the use of AI and computer vision.

“The idea is that if … say, you are trying to cross the street or go from A to B, the things that might be important for this task is to know where the obstacles nearby are, where the landmarks are that I need to walk to, and computer vision can help you with that,” Beyeler said. 

He emphasized that this potential technology would be more like an AI-powered visual aid instead of a replacement for natural sight. 

“Rather than aiming to represent the visual scene as faithfully as possible, we propose to focus on functionality instead. What is it you’re trying to do, and which visual cues might help you accomplish that?” Beyeler said. “For example, we can use computer vision to segment objects of interest from background clutter or detect structural edges of indoor environments to give users a sense of where they are in a room.” 

Design concept for the “Smart Bionic Eye.” Courtesy of Michael Beyeler, UCSB Bionic Vision Lab

The research team is currently collaborating with a number of groups worldwide, including those that work with patients using Argus II, the once most commonly available, but discontinued, retinal implant. They have also been in contact with a team in Spain that is developing an implant that could be inserted directly into the visual cortex. 

Beyeler’s work will build upon past and existing technologies, without which this work could not be done. However, his proposed bionic eye is unique.  

“What really sets this work apart from other projects is the use of computer vision and AI to support everyday tasks — which might make the difference between abandoned technology and a widely adopted, next-generation neuroprosthetic device,” he said.

Beyeler said that the first step involved in this project was to speak with local visually impaired residents, namely via the Braille Institute Santa Barbara Center, about how they generally navigate crowded or complex environments, as well as what is most important for them and what they might be missing with regard to the identification and avoidance of obstacles. 

Involving people with visual imparities is crucial to Beyeler and his project, despite the field of biotechnology having a poor track record when it comes to including “end-users.” He said that when those who will ultimately be benefitting from the technology are not involved in the process at every stage, there is a much higher chance that the product will not be adopted by the community in the long term, be it because people are opposed to the particular form, or simply because the product solves a problem that was not really there to begin with.  

In addition to his assistant professor position in the computer science department, Beyeler holds a joint appointment with the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and is the associate director of the UCSB Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior (ReCVEB), which aims to provide a space to develop new ways of using virtual reality with applications in the field of psychology. 

The team, through ReCVEB, has developed a virtual reality simulation of what it might look like to have a bionic eye. “This way, sighted participants, often our own students, recruited through the psych department, have the opportunity to experience some of our proposed visual augmentation strategies while performing simple wayfinding tasks in immersive virtual reality,” Beyeler said.  

Once the researchers have tested out various strategies, they can choose the best ones and have people with visual disabilities try the simulation to see what works and what doesn’t.

It has long been important to me that my research has a translational, real-world impact. The potential of being involved in the restoration of sight is an easy motivator — both for me and my students,” Beyeler said. 

If you are a student at UCSB and are interested in this research, the team is always looking for volunteers for their virtual reality studies. You do not need to be visually impaired to take part, and the team welcomes people of all backgrounds. If you would like to get involved as a researcher, check out their website where they advertise open positions for research assistantships and honors or master’s projects.