Bionic Eyes Go Dark

If you were blind, having an artificial retinal implant would mean the difference between seeing a few hundred pixels in greyscale and seeing all black, all the time. Imagine that you emerged from this total darkness, enjoyed a few years of mobility and your newfound sense, and then everything goes dark again because the company making the devices abandoned them for financial reasons.

This is a harrowing tale of close-source technology, and how a medical device that relies on proprietary hard- and software essentially holds its users hostage to the financial well-being of the company that produces it. When that company is a brash startup, with plans of making money by eventually pivoting away from retinal implants to direct cortical stimulation — a technology that’s in it’s infancy at best right now — that’s a risky bet to take. But these were people with no other alternative, and the technology is, or was, amazing.

One blind man with an implant may or may not have brain cancer, but claims that he can’t receive an MRI because Second Sight won’t release details about his implant. Those bugs in your eyes? When the firm laid off its rehab therapists, patients were told they weren’t going to get any more software updates.

If we were CEO of SecondSight, we know what we would do with our closed-source software and hardware right now. The company is facing bankruptcy, has lost significant credibility in the medical devices industry, and is looking to pivot away from the Argus system anyway. They have little to lose, and a tremendous amount of goodwill to gain, by enabling people to fix their own eyes.

Thanks to [Adrian], [Ben], [MLewis], and a few other tipsters for getting this one in!

48 thoughts on “Bionic Eyes Go Dark

    1. It’s hard to say on this one. Was the invention made in the first place because of the profit motive at the end of the tunnel? Probably. Would a publicly funded venture have done as well? Etc.

      So maybe that _is_ the win for capitalism. But then when it fails…

      Makes me re-think my knee-jerk response to the incredible expense of (other) medical gear, though. Part of what you’re paying for is a company that’s around in another couple years.

      Vs here, where they were selling the gear at a loss in order to fund their Ponzi scheme, ahem, pivot to a more profitable endeavor.

      1. The technology was initially developed by a non-profit and then spun off to a for-profit company. That is not acceptable in my view. I also know of non-profit healthcare companies that pay their CEO tens of millions in salary. Likewise disgusting. There needs to be a better business model available. Recover investment somehow, pay decent salaries but eliminate their ability to hold consumers and their health hostage to profit margins.

        1. I hear ya on that. The flow of public money, through universities and basic research funding, into private hands, is lousy.

          And many of the professors who get caught up in this game don’t like it either. Some are entrepreneurs at heart, of course, but a whole bunch of them only signed up for the science.

        2. The value that CEO might bring into the company – be it in more research funds, more corporate sponsors etc could make it worth it even as a not for profit – the real problem there is that to retain such high ‘value’ people as the pay packets get ever loftier at the top you end up paying them stupid money, even if they are worth it for the charity/not for profit it sounds awful.

          Really though its the whole CEO and upper management salary that really need to be less stupid in the first place across the board – a real reset there has been needed for quite some time. Even more so the golden handshake for fucking up enough you had to resign or actively got thrown out…

        1. Hi, I’d like to speak up, after thinking about it a lot, and say that I appreciated this article and what it brought to the table. The core issues here are about planned obsolescence, the right to own your technology – especially when it’s in your body! – and the consequences when tech startups fail to deliver. These are all topics that are both tech-related and important to Hackaday readers.

          You are the Editor-in-Chief. Don’t let this person bully you into shying away from topics because the mention of “politics” makes him comfortable, and I don’t want to see Hackaday be a website that does so either.

          I’m not normally a commenter but I felt this was too important to go unsaid.

    2. Protection of “intelectual property” – patents, copyrights and ban on some forms of reverse engineering isn’t capitalism (free market), it’s state’s intervention.

    1. How much would it cost to purchase the IP outright and open-source it?

      The article states that SS is facing bankruptcy, but I couldn’t find evidence of that online and in any SEC filings. It looks like SS has recently purchased an insulin dermal implant company, and that doesn’t sound like a company in distress.

      Back to the cost: I have no contacts in that community, but if someone else *does*, I would be willing to put up $100,000 to purchase that IP and open source it. If the company is going bankrupt anyway, and if they aren’t interested in making the product any more, then they might be willing to sell the designs.

      The situation would have to line up correctly: there have to be existing customers who have problems, and the problem has to be “fixable” without surgery: software updates or rechargers or whatnot to recover functionality.

      I strongly suspect that this is largely fake news, and that people with the implants don’t actually go blind due to software and/or licensing issues. Reading some of the news stories, it looks a lot like the implants simply wear out over time, and the company isn’t making or supporting them any more.

      That’s a whole lot different than the devices stopped due to lack of software update.

      There’s not a lot we can do about worn out devices, I doubt that anyone in the community can make new ones, but if any “HaDreaders” can set up the appropriate deal, I’ll put up $100K to finance it.

      Contact me on .IO through the comment link.

      And of course we, the hacker community, could perhaps set up a crowdfund account to add even more to the purchase amount.

      Do any HAD readers want to try their hand at community service?

      1. Not the least bit simple. They have about 350 units installed. Users seem to report around $500K total cost with about $150K being the bionic thingy. That’s about $50 million which is roughly the amount of their IPO. That seems to be so far below break-even that they’re thinking bankruptcy. I’d guess they would want many millions for the IP. If you had a non-profit which was able to accept charitable tax-deductible donations the company could possibly write off many millions to offset other income. I seriously doubt you’d find a surgeon willing to accept liability or an insurance carrier willing to insure. It must be closed-source. You want ironclad assurance against hacking. Nobody would want the risk of an amateur tinkering with this. This needs not only FDA approval but FCC, UL, CE and probably many others. Extensive testing, safety issues, cleanroom, etc. The cost of setting up a capable entity to pursue this is huge. The market is probably only in the thousands. Yes, it’s a nice humanitarian gesture. $100K wouldn’t even pay the retainer for a law firm willing to help set up the non-profit shell. No competent engineer would be willing to work this without assurance that they would not get sued in case of an incident. Boeing lost $billions from a little corporate safety negligence. Attorneys are digging deep to see who else they can sue. It will go on for decades. You really want to get involved with something like that?

        1. The IP is worth what someone will pay for it.

          Bankruptcy proceedings are designed to get creditors the money they are owed (and creditors routinely get much less than they are owed).

          If the highest bid for the source code is $10,000 put up by a group of customers and their friends, I’m guessing the bankruptcy judge would be obliged to give that money to the creditors, and hand over the IP to the buyers.

          Bonus points if that turns into a nonprofit that continues to develop the open technology.

  1. So I guess future FDA (or equivalent) approvals for these medical devices will need to include some type of escrow/soft-crow arrangement & associated assurance to guarantee access during the period that the medical device is still doing its thing for the patient.

  2. “This is a harrowing tale of close-source technology, and how a medical device that relies on proprietary hard- and software essentially holds its users hostage to the financial well-being of the company that produces it. ”

    And people will be held “hostage” to a for-pay medical system to install and maintain their open-source hardware and software.

    1. I guess if it’s open source, then you can pay someone to improve it for you, and there’s much less of a hurdle. Here, you’d have to pay for a reverse engineering first off, hope not to get DMCA sued because of it, and then pay for the work necessary to make the thing work again.

      1. Reverse engineer it?

        Inside someone’s head?

        Here, hold still while I stick this JTAG connector in your eyeball.
        Well, that didn’t work. Maybe I can get it to dump it’s firmware with some power spikes.

          1. I suspect literally any modification to the hardware or software would (rightly!) require new licensing, with the associated costs. It’s quite plausible that a bug in this thing could cause seizures, headaches, flashing green lights you can’t turn off etc. And if the device was tested for safety in an MRI machine, those tests might only be valid for specific firmware versions.
            Open source is a great thing for R&D, but it’s not magic, and it doesn’t make costs go away. Most of the problems here are to do with the way the medical industry works (or doesn’t work).
            Usually, there would at least be the argument that open code is more secure, as it can be audited, but in this case even that is dubious; if someone finds a way to root your eyeballs, and there’s no safe way to patch the vulnerability, then you’re actually worse off than when you at least had a little security through obscurity.

          2. @[Bobtato]

            I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the system on the medical side should be changed (rightfully so, as you say).

            True: you can’t get rid of all the costs and some substantial costs will still exist to comply with the system but at least these people could have back what little sight they had and have become accustomed to or even dependent on for their day to day living.

            3D printing has made a world of difference to amputees who are in need of prosthetics. This has especially beneficial to younger people who are still growing and need frequent updates that they simply wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. But then again there are less clinical and legal complications with 3D printed prosthetics.

            With something more complex like this topic the expenses that can’t avoid would probably be too much for one person but then again that is also the case with the original medical approvals. I’m confident that with open source, these people would be willing to contribute conjointly to cover these expenses.

      2. Revoking copyright protections isn’t without precedent. Just look at iridium. The company went bankrupt and was going to abandon their service, yet the courts forced them to sell it for pennies on the dollar, and specifically to a narrow list of companies that were capable of operating the fleet.
        Forcing this company to do the same isn’t beyond reason, and would eliminate the worst-case scenario you describe.

        Obviously being open source would be far better, or restrictions placed on medical IP protections a close second (or just following our existing copyright laws as written, since the IP no longer qualifies for any protections, so just stop illegally enforcing it already… but I digress)

        I don’t view [Ostracus]’s argument as valid, since neurosurgeons are plentiful and more enter the field every year. You can take your pick freely, so there’s no hostage situation being tied to one specific human there. Only an idiot would seriously expect a surgeon to work for free anywhere in the world. We’ve already decided slavery is wrong.

      3. I would love to see it be open source. There are still great challenges, even if it is open sourced.

        Working on medical devices for human use in the US is highly regulated (hardware and software). The annual registration fees for a facility to be approved are thousands of dollars. The approval process is incredibly involved, even for niche diseases where it is streamlined.

        But having the technology open might be enough to have a larger medical device company or university research group facilitate moving the device forward as philanthropy.

        Without the underlying technical details, trying to assist the patient could cause significant harm.

    2. Not everywhere has a for-pay medical system, and ultimately whichever way your medical system is funded you are always held hostage to their abilities – you can’t have the superduper fancy keyhole surgery if that new machine that makes it possible only exists in Germany (presumably where it was first built) for instance.

      Its also not really reasonable to expect every ailment to be fixed no matter who is paying for it – you get one of those long term lingering type problems that would keep an otherwise healthy 20 year old in hospital for months and your 80 and not in great health so it will take you years – That is hogging a bed for a long long time (maybe even the rest of your life)…

    3. In this world one is either moving forward or backward but never standing still.

      To open source this would help it immensely but as you state there is still the medical (not electronic) side leaching off of peoples misfortune but that’s already happening so there would still be a lot of benefit to the end user if it were open sourced.

      In my country we have free medical for poor citizens. It is slightly two tiered in that paying patients do get a slightly or in some cases significantly better clinical treatment. So the system isn’t perfect but it works by the most part.

      Recently I was in hospital for complex surgery (for a long time) that would have cost a lot and I met an American who was very ill and in need of clinical treatment. He was trapped here by COVID and was concerned that he couldn’t afford the treatment or the debt. I mentioned to him that should he get the needed clinical treatment that eventually he would be able to go home (to the US) after COVID and our country could not detain him for debt. Also I would very much doubt that my country would seek payment once he had returned home as the process was just too legally complex and expensive and the probability of success too low.

      So that is not just the system here, it’s also in the public mindset. It’s not a free for all mindset – if your coming here pay your medical insurance as our system is stretched like most other countries. But at the same time we won’t turn our backs on people in need.

      COVID also showed differences between or Governments perceptions and the peoples. We had many international visitors here at the beginning of COVID. Many were working tourists who had lost their ability to earn an income, lost their ability to return home and had run out of savings. Our government did nothing to support them which I find totally disgusting. Thankfully however, in our culture they were supported as we have a sharing nature, well at least most of us do.

      Really, the greatest predictor of the overall social, psychological, and medical health of a country is how they treat their most vulnerable.

      Unfortunately in my country (as it is in many western countries) those with disabilities are more hidden from society (excluded) rather than accepted and assisted.

      Hopefully the technology transitions we see now will help that. It already is an ways like cheap prosthetics for amputees.

      Open source works for the less fortunate as well as the general community because normal everyday people are more empathetic and giving than our governments are.

  3. Well, some of that is also because of … people.

    If we agree to reduce the liabilities in case of medical equipment failures, then we could demand better prices.

    But while people want to be able to receive astronomical refunds when some medical equipment fails/malfunctions ( some people seem to also hope that their new “part” will fail so that they can get the money ) , businesses will still price themselves very high, to shield them against it.

    Not that it is good to have the eye system being abandoned ( this eye thing seems like those from Dune ) , but even without software updates they still work, right ? Imagine if the updates were windows10-like. One day you would wake in the morning and your eyes would be swapped left with right, just because some “market research” decided people wanted that….

      1. The company tried but was unable to get hers to work again. Possibly a failure part of the implant. One man had his external box fall off his belt and shatter. Parts donated by others who had stopped using their systems and some volunteer help got it working again.

    1. By people I think you mean individual people right?
      If so then maybe not so much.
      How often is it the individual suing? I would guess it’s more the insurance companies.

      Think about it. It’s a medical issue. You need it fixed now, you aren’t waiting to win your lawsuit. So you just get it done and submit the bill to the insurance company. Now the insurance company wants to get the money back so they sue. Even if you wanted to sue the insurance company is going to get the first cut of the payout since they already shelled out money for this issue. So what’s your incentive to go hire a lawyer and go through all that yourself?

      Nope. Pretty sure the idea that sue-happy individuals drive up medical costs is mostly myth. Instead this is a many-way deal between hospitals, equipment manufacturers, drug companies and insurance companies that is negotiated far out of the public eye.

      1. By people, I mean human beings in general.

        People tend to want to lay the blame at the feet of others, and them demanding compensation.

        Here, we have heard of people wanting to sue municipalities and governments because of the problems with COVID. Or, after a natural disaster ( some big rocks fell from a cliff on a lake, killing some people that were on boats under said rocks ) , people want to say the local government was responsible. . For what ? Not issuing a law forbidding the rocks to fall ? ( and no, even if it were forbidden to go with boats to that place, people would still do it because of their “rights”. Like people that go to the forbidden places at the beach, and then complain there were not enough life guards to help them ….

  4. Yes, instead of trying to help needy people, politicians in US government only cares about sticking it to the other party. If one party proposes something that will really help the disadvantage, the other does everything it can to stop it.

    This would be a great opportunity for the Gov to do something meaningful and help people out. And it will probably cost the amount of 1 fighter jet.

    1. Medical technology is FAR from creating anything superior to the real thing. Seriously, it would be revolutionary if we could even make something on par with the human eye.

      Until we learn how to tame biology to build specific structures then we will only be making vastly inferior replacement organs. Our latest heart replacement is revolutionary but compared to biology, it is a laughable hunk of junk.

  5. There is a similar story with a company that made cochlear implants in the late 90 early 00’s that went out of business. The guy somehow managed to acquire the IP for the software and built a community of developers to keep improving the software. Last I saw, its better now than it ever was before.

  6. It’s important to remember that bankruptcy doesn’t mean “out of business” and there are things they legally can’t do while the proceedings are happening. The proprietary info would be an asset that the courts may order to be sold to pay a debt. Regardless, even if they intend to open source it, they legally can’t disperse an asset while the bankruptcy proceeding is still in process.

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