About 314 million people worldwide are visually impaired, and almost 45 million of those are blind, according to the World Health Organization Web site.

But one little robot might be able to lend a hand in bestowing the gift of sight.

Its name is Cyclops, and it is the brainchild of scientists at the California Institute of Technology.

Designed as a test platform for artificial retinas, the retinal prosthesis allows the robot to have the visual experience of a person using a retinal implant.

“How do you approximate what the blind can see with the implant so you can figure out how to make it better?” is the question posed by Wolfgang Fink, a visiting associate professor in physics at Cal Tech.

This is the question researchers hope Cyclops can answer.

“The idea is we use the Cyclops platform in lieu of the blind subject,” Fink said.

Few people worldwide have received retinal implants, keeping researchers limited.

“A sighted person’s objectivity is impaired,” Fink said in a press release. “They may not be able to get to the level of what a blind person truly experiences.”

The robot applies image-processing algorithms which creates a heavier contrast and allows the robot to differentiate a white wall from a darker doorway, Fink said.

“Just by pixilating images and looking at them with a healthy eye does not approximate what a blind person is experiencing,” Fink said. “Therefore, using a machine we get a lot closer to that goal because we can dictate what the machine can use for its navigational input.”

Now Cyclops is controlled via joystick.

“The missing link is to get rid of the joystick and have the robot control itself,” Fink said.

While Cyclops is not yet at the stage of independent movement, the theory is that it will recognize an obstacle or doorway through its camera and translate that data into a navigational command, which will move itself around the object and through the door.

At that stage, it will not only help the visually impaired explore the sights of the world around them, it may discover the surface of planets on its own.

Research is also being conducted on using the Cyclops as a testing ground for autonomous planetary exploration, Fink said.

Robots could use scientific algorithms to discover interesting geological targets or anomalies on other planets and move toward them to further investigate.

“It plays hand in hand; it is a multi-purpose platform,” Fink said.

Fink also said eventually lenses could be fitted with infrared cameras allowing people with artificial retinas to see at night or through dense fog.

“The idea is to enhance algorithms and to push the field of image processing to the point that is can be useful for implants and to arrive at the point where they allow independent mobility for the blind,” Fink said.

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This article was originally published in The Auburn Plainsman on 10/29/2009.

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