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Artificial, bionic-like eyes, similar to the ones in the iconic image of “The Terminator,” are another step closer to becoming reality. The trick for researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign was that in order to make a tiny video camera work like an eye, it must be shaped like an eye.
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A new digital camera not only resembles a human eye, it works like one too. Researchers mimicked the human eye’s curvature to make light detectors with many advantages over conventional flat chips. The sophisticated camera is a combination of optoelectronics and a biologically inspired design.
“This kind of technology that we’ve explored with the electronic eye, very naturally integrates with different body parts and organs,” says researcher John Rogers.
With a conventional camera design, the detector surface has always been flat, generating a flat image. But the eye-shaped camera allows for advanced imaging.
Up until now, nobody has been able to develop a curved surface because manufacturers only create photo-detector arrays for flat planar surfaces, not hemispherical ones, says Rogers.
But Rogers and his colleagues wired together silicon light detectors — one pixel in size each — with flexible cables, allowing the detectors to become eye-shaped. The authors published their paper in the journal Nature last August.
“That lets you go from the planar or flat condition in which it’s initially fabricated into this hemispherical shape that we were seeking to achieve for the artificial retina,” explains Rogers. “So what you need in order to make a hemispherical-shaped eye camera is not just bendable…but actually stretchable like a rubber band.”
The curved design can obtain a wide-angle field of view, which opens the doors for a very compact, high-performance camera, says Rogers.
A Look at the Future
Although the eye camera isn’t “state of the art” yet, Rogers says, it’s a good starting point for more advanced technologies in optics and even other parts of the human body.
“We think the initial applications will be in advanced surveillance systems, for example military-type applications, but also in night vision systems. … You can reduce the cost and weight and size of the night vision system.”
Rogers says he and his team are optimistic that this design could play an important role in retinal implants.
“All of the exciting work on implants is done just with conventional, flat detector arrays, and our technology could potentially serve as a drop-in replacement for those flat planar chips that are currently used,” he says.
Rogers and his team are now working on pacemakers that can wrap around the heart, which means more natural implants. “(The pacemaker will) pace it in very sophisticated ways that goes beyond anything that’s possible with current technology,” Rogers says.