The key feature of the device is an implant with 98 electrodes, made of biocompatible materials, which will stimulate surviving nerve cells in the retina - a layer of tissue at the back of the eye that converts light into electrical impulses necessary for sight.
With the bionic eye, images captured by a camera are processed by an external unit, such as a smart phone then relayed to the implant's chip. This stimulates the retina, sending electrical signals along the optic nerve into the brain where they are decoded as vision.
A brand new $2.5 million facility was opened last week by NSW Chief Scientist Professor Mary O'Kane, who said it would give bionic vision researchers the on-campus capability to produce their own medical implants to the highest quality and safety standard.
'Our primary aim is to complete the first prototypes of the bionic eye so they can be tested in human recipients in 2013,' says Professor Gregg Suaning from the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering at UNSW.
Suaning leads development of Bionic Vision Australia's wide-view device, the first of two prototypes aimed at restoring vision in people with degenerative retinal conditions.
The device will enable people as a minimum to better differentiate between light and dark, and to navigate around their surroundings more independently, says Suaning.
In the international race to develop a functional bionic eye the new facility will give researchers at UNSW an important leg-up.
'The new laboratory gives us the capacity to not only design and test, but to also fabricate novel and intricate bionic implants,' says Suaning. 'It will yield enormous potential and promise for future biomedical research and clinical outcomes.'
The upgraded facility will include a clean room and an array of state-of-the-art equipment for building complex microscopic components and testing the performance of microelectronics, says Professor Nigel Lovell, joint leader of UNSW's bionic vision research effort.
'The facility also allows the integration of implantable bionics with wearable sensors for telehealth monitoring,' says Lovell, 'underpinning our future research in personal health systems for managing a wide range of chronic diseases.'