We’ve all imagined having night vision. The ability to see in the dark without having to turn on a light or walk around with a flashlight is the stuff dreams are made of. But we could never see in the dark. We’ve evolved to see in the light, we aren’t creatures at the bottom of the ocean…
But there’s a chance we could be. Well, maybe not be like a creepy deep sea fish that haunted every child’s dream when Finding Nemo was released, but what if we could see like them? The ability to see at night and in low light may be closer than we think thanks to scientist Hongrui Jiang and his crack team at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The Elephantnose Fish
Drawing inspiration from animals, Jiang found the perfect fish to model his artificial night vision eye after. The elephantnose fish is known for its ability to see in dark and low light places. Jiang saw an opportunity and took it to study the animal’s eyes. What he and his team found was fascinating and lead to being the base of the artificial eye.
A little bit of background first: the elephantnose fish is native to the rivers of West and Central Africa. The fish prefers to live in slow moving and muddy waters where the light from the sun is blocked out by submerged branches. In low lighting, the fish flourishes.
However, in bright lighting, the elephantnose fish, well, flounders. The fish is commonly found in aquariums across the US, but are incredibly timid as they prefer dark and heavily planted areas. In such close quarters, the fish can also become aggressive and territorial.
But otherwise, the elephantnose fish is quite peaceful as it swims through the Niger, Ogun and Chari rivers of Africa.
The Elephantnose Fish’s Eyes
The fish is a dark, often brown color as seen here. As you can see in the picture, the fish has a funky nose which is where it gets its name from. But the nose isn’t the only thing that’s funky. They have odd retinas as well.
The main reason why Jiang chose to base his artificial eye on the elephantnose fish was because of the uniqueness of the retina. In the elephantnose fish’s retina, scientists have found tiny cup shaped proteins and light sensing cells. Humans have a similar composition, with rods and cone shaped receptors that see color and perceive light.
The difference is that inside these cups are light reflecting proteins that act as mirrors. The elephantnose fish only have cones that sense red light since it’s the only ray of light from the sun that penetrates the water that deeply.
The mirrors in the cups funnel the light to the rods which are located behind the cups. Because the rods are more sensitive as they are used to detect refined details, the brightness of the red light is increased by 10 times!
It’s no wonder this little fish has the science community excited. If replicating this eye structure means seeing in low light, that would open up doors to endless possibilities.
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The Artificial Night Vision Eye
Jiang took action and developed an artificial eye to see better in low or no lighting based on the cups found in the elephantnose fish’s eyes. Though the blueprints were all laid out for Jiang and his team, obstacles still presented themselves during the development process.
One of the roadblocks in developing the artificial eye was getting the right shape. The difficulty came to fruition when the team tried to create the parabolic shaped sidewalls of the eye. After a few trial and errors, a new technique using lasers was used to pulse the eye into shape.
The second obstacle came when it was time to make these sidewalls reflective. The elephantnose fish provided the blueprints for the eye design, but the how-to instructions were not. In the end, good old aluminum was used to coat the sidewalls to give it that reflective quality.
Finally, when the inside of the artificial eye was done being built, the retina was given a flexible substrate, much like the human eye possesses.
For all its challenges, the three years of hard work finally payed off, because we now have an artificial eye that can see in very low light. This new technology will impact future camera technology for the better.
What the Future Holds
You may be thinking why this artificial eye even matters unless it’s going to somehow be implanted into a human, Terminator-style. That would awesome, but the technology isn’t quite there yet.
Instead, this wonderful little eye will likely be used for cameras. This means great news for photographers out there who love photographing at night. The flash on a regular camera is a nightmare and causes people and objects to look like they have some strange orb omitting from them.
The artificial eye is also being thought to be used in surgical cameras. Surgery performed inside a person’s body is dangerous and scary for the patients and doctors alike (although they won’t admit it). The use of the night vision eye will facilitate the surgical procedure by providing light to dark spaces.
As far as Jiang is concerned, the artificial eye still has a long way to go. According to him, the next step in his research is to make the cups in the eye even smoother, to have less scattered and more consistent lighting.
Jiang is also looking for a way to reduce the cost of production. Wanting people to benefit and be helped by this new technology, Jiang is looking to produce them in large quantities. How he plans to achieve this is not yet known, but we have faith in him and his team.
So, you may not be getting that night vision immediately, but the technology is there. As it continues to develop, we hope that one day it can help people with vision impairments that impede night vision and low light vision.