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.

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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!

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Hackaday Links: August 30, 2020

Tech history is rife with examples of bizarre product demos, but we’ve got to think that Elon Musk’s Neuralink demo this week will have to rank up there with the weirdest of them. Elon’s job here was to sell the proposition that having a quarter-sized plug removed from your skull by a surgical robot and having it plunge 1,024 tiny wires into your gray matter will be totally normal and something that all the cool kids will be doing someday. We watched the 14-minute supercut of the demo, which went on for considerably longer than that due to the realities of pig wrangling, and we remain unsold on the technology. Elon selling it as “a Fitbit in your skull, with tiny wires” probably didn’t help, nor did the somewhat terrifying appearance of the surgical robot needed to do the job. On the other hand, Gertrude the Bionic Pig seemed none the worse for her implant, which was reportedly wired to her snout and sending data wirelessly. The demonstration of reading joint positions directly from the brain was honestly pretty neat. If you want to dive deeper into Neuralink, check out Maya’s great article that separates fact from science fiction.

Jerry Carr, NASA astronaut and commander of the third and final crewed Skylab mission, passed away this week at the age of 88. Carr’s Skylab 4 mission was record-breaking in 1974, with the three astronauts living and working in the orbiting workshop for 84 days. The mission contributed a vast amount of information on space medicine and the human factors of long-duration spaceflight. Carr retired from NASA in 1977 and had a long career as an engineer and entrepreneur. It’s sad to lose yet another of the dwindling number of heroes remaining from NASA’s manned-flight heyday.

Speaking of spaceflight, the closest most of us DIYers can get to space is likely courtesy of a helium-filled balloon. If you’ve ever considered sending something — or someone — aloft, you’ll find this helium balloon calculator an invaluable tool. Just plug in the weight of your payload, select from a few common balloon sizes, and the calculator will tell you how many you need and how much gas it will take to fill them. It’s got a second section that tells you how many more balloons it’ll take to get to a certain altitude, should merely getting off the ground not be enough for you.

If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that time is, at best, a negotiable concept. Improbably, September is only a day away, after an August that somehow took forever to go by in the blink of an eye. With that in mind,  October is OSHWA’s Open Hardware Month, with this year’s theme being “Label and Certify”. We’re a little bit in love with the Open Hardware Facts generator, which takes your open-source hardware, software, and documentation license and generates a USDA “Nutrition Facts”-style label for your product. They’ve also added tools to make it easier to get OSHWA certification for your project.

And finally, what would it be like to pilot a giant exoskeleton? Like, a 9,000 pound (4,100 kg), quadrupedal all-terrain beast of a mech? Turns out you can (theoretically) find out for yourself courtesy of Furrion Exo-Bionics and their monster mech, dubbed Prosthesis. The machine has been in development for a long time, with the vision of turning mech racing into the next big thing in sports entertainment. Their Alpha Mech Pilot Training Program will allow mere mortals to learn how to pilot Prosthesis at the company’s proving ground in British Columbia. Details are sparse, so caveat emptor, but it sure looks like fun.

Pegleg: Raspberry Pi Implanted Below The Skin (Not Coming To A Store Near You)

Earlier this month, a group of biohackers installed two Rasberry Pis in their legs. While that sounds like the bleeding edge, those computers were already v2 of a project called PegLeg. I was fortunate enough to see both versions in the flesh, so to speak. The first version was scarily large — a mainboard donated by a wifi router roughly the size of an Altoids tin. It’s a reminder that the line between technology’s cutting edge and bleeding edge is moving ever onward and this one was firmly on the bleeding edge.

How does that line end up moving? Sometimes it’s just a matter of what intelligent people can accomplish in a long week. Back in May, during a three-day biohacker convention called Grindfest, someone said something along the lines of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” Anyone who has spent an hour in a maker space or hacker convention knows how those conversations go. Rather than ending with a laugh, things progressed at a fever pitch.

The router shed all non-vital components. USB ports: ground off. Plastic case: recycled. Battery: repurposed. Amazon’s fastest delivery brought a Qi wireless coil to power the implant from outside the body and the smallest USB stick with 64 GB on the silicon. The only recipient of PegLeg version 1.0 was [Lepht Anonym], who uses the pronoun ‘it’. [Lepht] has a well-earned reputation among biohackers who focus on technological implants who often use the term “grinder,” not to be confused with the dating app or power tool.

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Maybe You Really Can Sense Magnetic Fields

We’ve known for years that many animals can somehow sense magnetic fields. Birds apparently use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. Dogs can find a box containing a magnet better than they can find a similar box with a food treat in it. But humans, apparently, can’t visualize magnetic fields without help. Several scientists at California, New Jersey, and Japan have done experiments that seem to show that people’s brains do have changes when a magnetic field rotates. If the paper, titled “Transduction of the Geomagnetic Field as Evidenced from Alpha-band Activity in the Human Brain” is a bit much for you, might enjoy the video from Veritasium, below, which is much easier to parse than the paper.

To see it work, a subject sits in a dark isolated room with an electrode cap that picks up the subject’s EEG. The study shows that different people have different sensitivity to the field. Also, picking up a magnetic field in an isolated chamber is different from picking it up on the sidewalk and using it to navigate with. Continue reading “Maybe You Really Can Sense Magnetic Fields”

Human Augmentation For Weight Loss

If you read almost any article about powered human implants, you will encounter the same roadblock, “it could be so much better with more powerful batteries.” Our fleshy power systems are different from electrical systems, but we are full of moving parts, so [Xudong Wang] and fellow researchers have harnessed that power (Sci Hub Alt) and turned it right back into something else our body understands.

The goal of this project is to control obesity by tricking the vagus nerve into thinking we are full as we digest our current meal. The treatment has already been proven with battery-powered implants, but this version uses the oscillations of the stomach for power and sends the generated power right where it is needed. A control group of rats showed no change over 100 days, but those with this implant shed more than a third of their body weight. This may need some tuning but its effectiveness seems to be heading the right way, and it is surgically reversible.

The device is a triboelectric generator coated in polyimide and Ecoflex™ with gold electrodes that wrap around the vagus nerve at the gastro-esophageal junction. The generator presses against the stomach from outside and the rhythm of the muscles generates the signal that the stomach is full so it becomes a loop of digesting ⇄ sated.

Another handful, of implants don’t need power from inside the body and use RFID technology.
Via IEEE Spectrum.

Internal Power Pills

Arguably the biggest hurdle to implanted electronics is in the battery. A modern mobile phone can run for a day or two without a charge, but that only needs to fit into a pocket and were its battery to enter a dangerous state it can be quickly removed from the pocket. Implantable electronics are not so easy to toss on the floor. If the danger of explosion or poison isn’t enough, batteries for implantables and ingestibles are just too big.

Researchers at MIT are working on a new technology which could move the power source outside of the body and use a wireless power transfer system to energize things inside the body. RFID implants are already tried and tested, but they also seem to be the precursor to this technology. The new implants receive multiple signals from an array of antennas, but it is not until a couple of the antennas peak simultaneously that the device can harvest enough power to activate. With a handful of antennas all supplying power, this happens regularly enough to power a device 0.1m below the skin while the antenna array is 1m from the patient. Multiple implants can use those radio waves at the same time.

The limitations of these devices will become apparent, but they could be used for releasing drugs at prescribed times, sensing body chemistry, or giving signals to the body. At this point, just being able to get the devices to turn on so far under flesh is pretty amazing.

Recently, we asked what you thought of the future of implanted technology and the comment section of that article is a treasure trove of opinions. Maybe this changes your mind or solidifies your opinion.

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