The bionic eye: turning science fiction into science fact

Efstratios (Stan) Skafidas doesn’t look like a professor, certainly not one drawn from the cliched stereotypes of that title. The suited Skafidas looks younger than his 40 years in Grattan Street’s academically-inclined Baretto cafe  in Melbourne, directly opposite the medical building of Melbourne University. With flecks of grey at the temples, at first glance this youthful professor might be taken for a lawyer or marketing executive; not surprising perhaps, given this high-achieving academic’s track record in the commercial application of his often ground-breaking research.

Stan Skafidas was awarded his Doctoral Degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Melbourne in 1997. Today, as Professor of Nanoelectronics and Director – Centre for Neural Engineering, he leads the university’s research in this area of electronics engineering devoted to creating miniscule components – new generations of transistors and chips that are at the heart of wireless communications that continue to transform how we communicate and how we live today. Stan Skafidas was born in 1971. His parents were from Amaliada and Kalamata in Greece and had arrived in Melbourne in the early 1960s. Raised in Thornbury, Stan’s interest in science and engineering was clear at an early age. “People would buy me presents for my birthday or name day and I’d take them apart,” says the young professor. He was schooled at Saint Johns, before going on to undergraduate studies, also at Melbourne University. Married in 1994, he headed to the United States and the esteemed Cornell University to undertake his post-Doctoral thesis. Immersed in the culture of Cornell, the experience was seminal for the young electronics engineer. “There was a focus on the research,” says Skafidas, “but also on its commercialisation.” On completing his studies, he co-founded the company Bandspeed, a vehicle to commercialise his research in the design and manufacture of semiconductor and other products for wireless systems. At Bandspeed, Skafidas co-invented a system called Adaptive Frequency Hopping – a technology that became a vital component in Bluetooth devices worldwide.

Though tempted to make a permanent home in the United States, Skafidas decided to return to Melbourne and his Alma Mater, in order to work with NICTA (National ICT Australia), Australia’s Information and Communications Technology Centre of Excellence, which is part of the university. In 2008, Skafidas and his NICTA team announced a world-first in the development of an integrated transceiver capable of wirelessly delivering data at multi-gigabit per second speeds. This next generation of wireless technology allows huge digital files to be transferred in a fraction of the time it takes with existing systems. But perhaps his most remarkable and far-reaching project to date, involves the development of something that will turn science fiction into science fact – a bionic eye. Just about to start human trials, Skafidas has been part of a team researching the possibility of combining wireless technology and opthalmics to overcome macular degeneration, the single biggest cause of blindness in the developed world.

“We’re working on building a prosthesis,” says Skafidas, “something that sits on the retina and stimulates the retinal ganglion cells, in order to restore vision. We’re building a chip – you can think of it as a bed of nails which plugs into the retina.” Sketching out the elements of the process on his notepad, Stan explains that the idea is for a small video camera, perhaps within the user’s glasses, to create the image; that is then converted into electrical charge which is passed on wirelessly to the tiny chip with the minuscule ‘bed of nails’ electrodes. The chip is positioned in the eye’s retina where the macular degeneration has occurred, and where the ganglion cells can be stimulated. “There are other groups around the world working on this idea, but we think we’ve got some unique capability to build a system that has more than one thousand electrodes and which can transfer the electrical charge wirelessly into the device,” says Stan.

“That’s critically important. If you have wires in the eye, they can act as a conduit to infection. We’ve been able to develop systems to transfer the power and data wirelessly, and to build these chips.” As part of the consortium Bionic Vision Australia, Skafidas has been working on the project for three years. It’s still at an early stage and he admits that there’s a lot more work to do, but human trials are not far away for a device that might truly be described as nothing short of miraculous.

Published by Neos Kosmos, Melbourne

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