Elvis, a bionic eye solution created by Skolkovo company Sensor-Tech, is the first step towards restoring eyesight using artificial intelligence. The device sends images of object outlines in real-time directly into the brain using a combination of smart vision, a microchip, and electrodes. The device could change many lives in the years to come.

Elvis bionic vision solution on display. Photo: Sk.ru.

Blindness affects millions of people around the world. In the United States alone, one million people are completely blind, and total blindness affects approximately 35 million people worldwide; 246 million also suffer from low vision. In Russia, the number of people suffering total blindness is about one hundred thousand. At what stage is this technology? There are few analogs of Sensor-Tech’s device, one of which is in the United States, but Elvis is unique in Russia and is a fully functioning prototype. Still, according to the head of the project and CEO of Sensor Tech, Denis Kuleshov, there are many hurdles to pass before it can enter Russia’s healthcare system. Should all go according to plan, the bionic eye system could be distributed throughout the country by 2027. Mr. Kuleshov spoke to Sk.ru to discuss the project and its future in further detail.

Denis Kuleshov, Sensor-Tech CEO.

“Where we are now is that we are testing the implantable parts on animals - rats, to be specific. These implantable parts are made up of electrodes and the microprocessor that controls the electrodes. So far we have had encouraging results, but later this year and next year, we will need to make more electrodes with different configurations, and we will test them on both rats and apes. This is to ensure the safety and efficiency of this technology,” said Mr. Kuleshov.

The animal tests take place in the second half of 2021 and will continue through 2022. After that, the next phase of the project will involve testing the bionic eye on human subjects.

“Following our trials on animals, we hope that the government will give us the green light to go for human trials,” said Mr. Kuleshov. “With rats, we are using an experimental model that stimulates the motor cortex rather than the visual cortex. The rat experiences a tickling sensation in its whiskers, which move a few millimeters back and forth; this way, we can ensure that we can provide the experience to the animal with this specific amount of stimulation. When we move on to apes, we will use another model for the trials. First, we will train them to see a stimulus on the touchscreen; after that, they are blindfolded, and we will project stimuli using the brain implant, and the subject will still be able to point on the touchscreen when they see these stimuli. That is the basic plan for the experiment."

Elvis is not just a fully functioning prototype but an entire system. It comprises a microchip, electrodes, a smart camera, and a headband to hold everything in place and has a small computer attached to the user’s belt. The artificial intelligence algorithms convert the images from the camera into something that the brain can understand, and a critical feature is that it works entirely offline.

A member of the audience tries on the Elvis device to demonstrate what it would look like when equipped. Photo: Sk.ru.

“We place one hundred electrodes in the brain in a ten to ten matrix,” said Mr. Kuleshov. “There is no point in transferring the image from the camera into the brain because the brain won’t understand it. So instead, we use our AI algorithms to capture the shapes of really important objects for the patients; these could be the shapes of chairs, cars, and people, and the outlines are transferred into the brain implant.”

The smart vision that Elvis utilizes can also pick up smaller objects, such as a pen or a cup on a table, although this is slightly more limited. A person wearing the device will see the outline of another person in front of them, but if they were to focus on an object on a table, the device needs to be closer.

“You will see the outline of a person waving at you, but when it comes to smaller objects, the device will pick them up at a short distance, but you wouldn’t be able to read a newspaper with small text,” said Mr. Kuleshov.

The battery life of the current prototype is three hours, but the final version of the device for medical registration will have an eight-hour battery life. According to Mr. Kuleshov, the user will charge the battery using a simple USB type-c cord.

“Government programs and insurance companies in many countries cover this type of high-tech. The one hundred-thousand-dollar price tag includes the device, the operation, medical services, and rehabilitation," said Mr. Kuleshov. "Of course, it depends on the country because prices differ. Regarding Russia, this will be the first place to certify this as a medical device, and we hope to do this by 2027. That is a fast track for such a technology. Our government has a program supporting super-high-tech medical services for people, and there is a budget to buy such devices from companies and perform such operations for free for people who need them."

“Of course, you need to do a lot to convince the government, overcome the bureaucratic hurdles, etc.," said the Sensor-Tech CEO. "It’s not like a ‘one-click scenario.’ The procedure works in the following way. First, we have to convince them that we can do clinical trials with humans. You can do this after pre-clinical trials with animals. We hope to try the trials with humans in 2024. After that, we will do these clinical trials with medical institutions for two years. If all goes well, by the end of 2026, we hope to receive certification from the government saying that the technology is good, safe, and super-efficient. After that, you can put in the implants for anyone who wants them. Because of the price of the technology, most people couldn’t pay for it themselves, which is why the government has procedures to pay for it. In one or two years following certification, the technology will be added to a special government list of technologies that could be provided for free in Russia according to their situation and medical history.”

The Elvis project has been ongoing since 2019 and is funded by the Deaf-Blind Support Foundation ''Con-nection.” They are the primary sponsor and initiator of this project because they know how important it is for the blind to get their vision back, even if it’s bionic vision.

“We gained Skolkovo residency for this project at the beginning of June. I hope that with Skolkovo, we’ll be able to find investors. With this prototype and our energy and effort, we are ready to attract commercial investors.”