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On Tech & Vision With Dr. Cal Roberts

Jul 1, 2021

This podcast is about big ideas on how technology is making life better for people with vision loss.

Today’s big idea is all about the cutting edge advancements in ocular bionic prosthetics. The Argus II is a device that uses a camera and a chip to stimulate the retina and send signals to the brain. Our guest, Dr. Mark Humayun, developer of the Argus II, speaks with Dr. Roberts about the development of this device, and the importance of the collaboration between developers and early adopters. He talks about the engineering, neurophysiology, and surgical challenges they’ve overcome to get to where they are, as well as what kind of advancements might be possible in the future.


The Big Takeaways:

  • The Argus II is a device with two components: a wearable component that consists of glasses with a camera and video processing unit and an implanted device that includes an antenna and an electronic chip that sends electrodes to stimulate the remaining cells of the retina.
  • The visual system is similar to a computer in that it requires hardware (our eyes, retina, optic nerve, visual cortex) and software (converts signals to what we describe as sight). When developing artificial vision, Dr. Humayun had to pinpoint how much of the retina needed to be replaced, as well as how much of the retina needed to still exist for the device to work.
  • The electronic system stimulates groups of neurons into visual perceptions. Users of the Argus II can currently perceive up to 10 shades of gray. Dr. Humayun and his team are working on getting the device to generate color vision by stimulating the retina at different frequencies, which the wearer learns to associate with a named color.
  • The cochlear implant was a big influence on the initial development of Argus II — they reconfigured a cochlear implant and used it to stimulate the retina rather than the cochlea. As they reconfigure and continue to develop the device, the collaboration between actual users and developers is crucial.
  • Now that they have the hardware and technology, they can focus on future developments like an implant that bypasses the optic nerve and sends electrodes directly to the visual cortex.



  • “I’ve been so lucky my whole adult life to have that collaborative experience with everyone who’s ever built legs for me.” — Aimee Mullins, actor, athlete, public speaker, and double amputee
  • “The most emotional thing for me was being able to see letters again. That was such an emotional experience, I don’t know how to put it into words.” — Barbara Campbell, Argus II implant recipient
  • “You can think of it like this, that it wirelessly connects the blind person to a camera, and jumpstarts the otherwise blind eye and sends the information to the brain.” — Dr. Mark Humayun
  • “There are some features that are different than our human eye, there are some advantages, but clearly our human eye is incredibly, exquisitely engineered to give you a very pristine, refined, and high-resolution image.” — Dr. Mark Humayun


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Guest Bio:

Dr. Mark Humayun

  • Mark S. Humayun, MD, PhD, is Director, USC Ginsburg Institute for Biomedical Therapeutics and Co-Director, USC Roski Eye Institute. Dr. Humayan received his Bachelor of Science degree from Georgetown University in 1984, his Master's Doctorate from Duke University in 1989, and his PhD from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1994. He completed his ophthalmology residency at Duke Eye Center and fellowships in both vitreoretinal and retinovascular surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He stayed on as faculty at Johns Hopkins where he rose to the rank of associate professor before moving to USC in 2001. Dr. Humayun has devoted much of his career to clinical and scientific research in ophthalmology and bioengineering, becoming both a biomedical engineer and professor of ophthalmology. Dr. Humayun led a talented and diverse team of interdisciplinary researchers with the ultimate goal of creating the world’s first artificial retina. He assembled a team of world experts with a wide range of proficiency, including biomedical engineering, computer science, medicine, chemistry, biology, and business. In clinical trials since 2007 and approved by the FDA in 2013, the Argus II retinal implant, represents the culmination of a visual restoration strategy that offers an unprecedented degree of sight to those with complete retinal blindness. He was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Medicine (NAM) and National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for his pioneering work to restore sight. With over 200 publications and more than 100 patents and patent applications, Dr. Humayun has received several research awards, which include the 2005 Innovator of the Year award. He was also featured as one of the top 10 inventors in Time Magazine in 2013, voted as one of the Best Doctors in America for three years, and one of the top 1% of Doctors by U.S. News & World Report. In 2016, Dr. Humayun received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama for his innovative work and development of the Argus II.

Host Bio:

Dr. Calvin W. Roberts

  • Calvin W. Roberts, MD, is President and Chief Executive Officer of Lighthouse Guild, the leading organization dedicated to providing exceptional services that inspire people who are visually impaired to attain their goals. Dr. Roberts has a unique blend of academic, clinical, business, and hands-on product development experience. Dr. Roberts is a Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He was formerly Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Eye Care, at Bausch Health Companies where he coordinated global development and research efforts across their vision care, pharmaceutical, and surgical business units. As a practicing ophthalmologist from 1982 to 2008, he performed more than 10,000 cataract surgeries as well as 5,000 refractive and other corneal surgeries. He is credited with developing surgical therapies, over-the-counter products for vision care, prescription ocular therapeutics, and innovative treatment regimens. He also holds patents on the wide-field specular microscope and has done extensive research on ophthalmic non-steroidals and postoperative cystoid macular edema. Dr. Roberts has co-founded a specialty pharmaceutical company and is a frequent industry lecturer and author. He currently serves as an Independent Director on multiple corporate boards and has served as a consultant to Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, and Novartis. A graduate of Princeton University and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, Dr. Roberts completed his internship and ophthalmology residency at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in New York. He also completed cornea fellowships at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston.