Bionic Implants Can Go Obsolete And Unsupported, Too

When a piece of hardware goes unsupported by a company, it can be frustrating. Bugs may no longer get fixed, or in the worst cases, perfectly good hardware can stop working entirely as software licences time out. Sadly, for a group reliant on retinal implants from company Second Sight, the company has since stopped producing and supporting the devices that give them a crude form of bionic sight.

The devices themselves consist of electrodes implanted into the retina, which can send signals to the nervous system which appear as spots of light to the user. A camera feed is used to capture images which are then translated into signals sent to the retinal electrodes. The results are low-resolution to say the least, and the vision supplied is crude, but it gives users that are blind a rudimentary sense that they never had before. It’s very much a visual equivalent to the cochlear implant technology.

The story is altogether too familiar; Second Sight Medical Products came out with a cutting-edge device, raised money and put it out into the world, only to go bankrupt down the road, leaving its users high and dry. Over 350 people have the implants fitted in one eye, while one Terry Byland is the sole person to have implants in both his left and right eyeballs. Performance of the device was mixed, with some users raving about the device while others questioned its utility.

However, all the users of Second Sight implants are now on their own. Any failure or issue will go unrectified, as the company and its staff no longer exist to support or service the implants or associated hardware. For some, the implants still work. For others, like Barbara Campbell, the device simply powered down one day and has left her without sight ever since.  Medical problems can crop up too – one patient was unable to get an MRI as doctors couldn’t secure information on the device after the company collapsed.

It’s a sobering tale of what can happen when a tech company goes out of business. It’s a story that bears thinking about for anyone taking on a medical device from a new, untested company. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Ben and Adrian for the tip!]

33 thoughts on “Bionic Implants Can Go Obsolete And Unsupported, Too

  1. Sadly, a lot of biotech companies rarely have the resources to take such really cutting edge stuff much past the working prototype stage. They find initial test subjects to waiver the installs and hope there’s enough wonderment in their tech to keep investors excited….into the long term, ” devil in the details” refinement phase. Pretty sad when it comes apart and leaves people hanging. Maybe bonded insurance for lifetime care and maintenance or removal?

  2. Anybody that thinks a patent is a good idea need leave, once you’re in someone’s space. It’s common to all of us. No AI in the human space! If you want to go here, communism and worse. Medicine must be FOSS.

    1. > Medicine must be FOSS.

      Let’s extend that to knowledge in general.

      The main source of income today is hiding knowledge from competitors. That’s sooooooo stoneage! Don’t tell anyone where you found the sweet fruit and where the deer hides. Shouldn’t we be a bit or even a nibble more advanced than our ancestors in the caves?

        1. Patents are good but that 20-year grant slows progress down too much.

          How about 5 years, extendable in 5 year increments up to 30. Each extension is subsequently harder to get with the first requiring only filling out a form. The second is that plus a small fee. After that the fees get progressively larger plus the applicant must submit an explanation of how they are actually trying to develop plus get the technology to market and what difficulties have prevented them from already doing so and making their deserved profit. After 10 years the fees take into account the financial capabilities of the applicant and are calculated to be difficult though not impossible. After about 15 years this is no longer a simple matter of writing an essay but requires actually sitting before a judge.

          If anything more than a vanishingly small percentage of special-circumstance patent holders make it to year 30 then this is an indication the system needs adjustment. Judging on the validity of extension requests and/or fees should then become tougher.

    2. FYI: The pre legal patent ‘natural’ version was called a ‘secret’.

      That means knowledge is lost when someone takes the secret to his/her grave.
      Patents are better, they have to write down the discovery to secure the protection.

      Which isn’t to defend ‘forever’ copyrights, but that is a different discussion.
      The damn mouse it a trademark in any case. Trademarks are a third discussion.

      I’d think the FDA filings would contain many technical details of this device. The FCC filings should get you a look inside to start things rolling.

      1. “The damn mouse it a trademark in any case. ”

        Ok. How about this? Stop extending copyright every time Micky comes up for expiration. But Disney can still keep exclusive rights to their mouse forever. The catch is to do so they must rename themselves the Mickey Mouse company and pursue any violations as trademark violations rather than copyright.

        I do agree though that copyright is a totally separate discussion than patent. And it’s not really one I care so much about. The same stories or at least the same finite collection of human story-themes get retold infinitely using different character names and settings without violating copyright and always will.

  3. There needs to be a law that requires the designs and sources to be deposited with the government so that they become public domain in the event that the products are no longer maintained by the manufacturer or any successor. Also the law should prevent any medical device from being shut off remotely.

      1. Not sure how detailed the information is that is filed with the FDA. But the important thing is to have a mechanism in place to make the necessary information available to people who may be able to maintain the equipment.

      2. The FDA would not have all the details about the device software and hardware. They ensure that the device is developed and fabricated under processes to ensure safety, and also tested to prove correct operation. They don’t copy and backup the manufacturing process and engineering details.

    1. You’re assuming that the source will be useful. Not true. I worked for a major company that was obligated to put code in escrow in case they decided to stop supporting the product. They did. Mostly. They did not put the entire toolchain into escrow. Lots of that stuff was a decade or two obsolete and was being used without proper license. They did not and could not escrow all the third-party libraries. The company used parts that were already at end-of-life and had their own stockpile. You can have the entire design and the code and still be unable to build or maintain the product without reverse engineering the whole thing. Expensive. All certification tests need to be done over. All the important unwritten stuff only in the heads of the engineers lost.

      1. They probably could not escrow everything, but they could have add all needed informations about what is missing, where to retrieve it, how to put the build chain in place… If you REALLY want to ensure that anybody would be able to use the source code, you can find a way to do it!

        1. Yes you can make it easy or hard.
          Typically buy encoding the source into EBCIDC and sending unlabeled _seven_ track tapes to ironmountain.

          It’s also the best way to respond to discovery. Even better: hard copy on greenbar with a 30 year old printer ribbon, using dingbats font.

          But best if the code is ‘evolved’. It will be unusable on its face after 20 years of hack type fixes and obsolete comments misdirecting.

    1. They’re not cutting off users, or turning it off for people – the company literally no longer exists.
      It’s sad, but aside from some over-enthusiasm on the company’s potential, nothing bad happened. This is why “big pharma” is like it is – very slow and expensive to develop things, with massive sign-off processes etc. sure, the middle ground is probably in the middle (lifetime insurance to cover removal should be provided with any implant?) but this is what happens when startup culture starts to enter industries which are regulated for good reason.

  4. This is why I do everything I can to avoid buying devices with a required app or remote-server to interface. It will eventually be unsupported because of new hardware, old hardware, a missing server, or all three.

    Give me a web interface and a local IP address. Even if a new web standard completely diverges from the current one, something as long lasting as HTML will be supported by the hobbyists until you or the hardware are dead.

  5. What about the students in India with their “ear implants”?

    I can’t imagine a cochlear implant suddenly losing support. So maybe the issue is people wanting experimental implants, rather than something fully developed.

    If the government stops paying for my very expensive drug, I’ll die. Why is one seen as secure, but not the other?

  6. The sad fact is that the motivating factor in medical improvements is the potential for a huge payout by the inventor once introduced and accepted. Medicine is business. All that talk about how “we care for the patient” or “caring is our motto” is all smoke and mirrors. So if all medical discoveries would go to the government/public domain thereby depriving the inventor of the huge payout he/she thought they were going to get, then the incentive is gone or at least reduced. I like capitalism, but not 100% across the board. The incentives can be huge, but when it comes to medical situations – it’s a special situation. You’re dealing with people’s lives and their ability to rise above handicaps and health problems so before you would enter into such a venture – you’d want to make sure your motives are pure. Having to strongarm an invention away from an inventor because people could use it is a double-edged sword. Sadly, if someone knew the end result of an invention was helping a ton of people, but not getting paid for it – I can see them reasoning, “Why bother?” and just let it be. I guess subsidizing might be a solution – they use it to force wind-generators to be erected – but the end result of that is debatable as well.

  7. I think that when the CEO of the company acquiring the original company describes the past as “simply not relevant to the new future.” you know you have a problem; because he’s talking about you.

    1. I think you can drop #1 but definitely keep #2

      When a patent holder goes bankrupt that means they owe their creditors more than they can pay. Their stuff is auctioned off so that the money can go towards at least partially paying back their debtors. That includes their patents.

      I don’t see anything wrong with that. It seems pretty common sense to me.

      The problem is the most likely buyer is a patent troll.

      In the case of major quality-of-life or even life/death items like medical devices I could see also stipulating that whoever gets the patent also gets any warranty or service-contract responsibilities the old company had with it.

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