Coming into Focus

blurredvision, by Flickr user Paul Denton Cocker.

According to the National Eye Institute, more than 3 million Americans are blind or have vision so poor that everyday tasks become extremely difficult. Interestingly, according to a recent article by Pam Belluck in The New York Times, a new research project in its trial stages is using photography to help some blind people see.

Each of a small number of project participants in the US, Mexico and Europe has had a sheet of electrodes, which act as artificial retinas, implanted in their eyes. Each person wears a pair of glasses outfitted with a tiny camera, which captures video images that are then processed and translated into patterns of light and dark by a belt-worn image processor. The resulting signals—representing the contours of objects and registering relative brightness and contrast—are sent along optic neurons into the brain.

Currently, the images received are heavily pixilated and blurry, as the retinal implants now have only 60 electrodes embedded in them. While some people find the results primitive, others are thankful for the ability to distinguish the borders and boundaries of things, or to see flashes of light from reflective objects. With plans to increase the number of electrodes used in the system, the prospects for improved images and clearer vision are promising.

For the time being, some participants report that they are now able to sense what neurologists call "the gist of a scene." For an upcoming story for click! photography changes everything, due later this fall, Aude Oliva, a neurological researcher at MIT, is writing about experiments that test how quickly sighted people "get" what a picture is of, even if the photograph they are shown is very, very blurry. Apparently, as soon as most of us perceive the broadest outlines or shapes of what’s in front of us, the neurological process of recognition kicks in and we draw upon stored information from our previous visual experiences.

From a photographic point of view, both of these experimental approaches raise a similar and interesting point. If what we need to "see" is much less visual information then what we might have suspected, and if that process happens very quickly, how closely do most of us look at photographs, in general?

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