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William Dobelle, 62; Engineer Aided Artificial Vision for Blind

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

William Dobelle, an electrical engineer who was responsible for an experimental system of artificial vision for the blind, has died. He was 62.

Dobelle died of complications from diabetes on Oct. 5 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

As scientific teams around the world sought to develop technology for a system enabling artificial vision, Dobelle’s concept showed promise in 2000 when it restored limited visual abilities in a blind volunteer.

Developed over 30 years of research, the Dobelle Artificial Vision System uses a miniature camera attached to glasses worn by a blind person. The camera’s images are relayed to a portable computer, which transmits them to electrodes fixed to the brain.

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“I believe I am safe in saying that Braille, the long cane and the guide dog are doomed to obsolescence. By the end of this century, they will be as obsolete as the airplane made the steamship,” Dobelle told a New York meeting of the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs in 2002.

At that time, he said he had implanted 64 electrodes on the surface of eight patients’ brains. Because of U.S. Food and Drug Administration restrictions on implanting medical devices in the brain, the surgery was performed at the University of Lisbon Medical School in Portugal. The experimental system cost an estimated $115,000 per patient.

At the New York meeting, Dobelle introduced scientists to one of the first recipients, identified only as “Jens.” To demonstrate his partially regained sight, Jens navigated through rooms, appeared to “see” doors and even drove a car in a parking lot, avoiding a trash bin and other obstacles placed in his path.

Dobelle emphasized that his system was designed to improve blind people’s mobility rather than enabling them to read. But he told the audience that “rapid advances provide the possibility that the patients will be able to scan the Internet and watch television.”

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Systems to provide sight to the blind and visually impaired have become increasingly important as the population ages. In 2002, the National Eye Institute reported that more than 1 million Americans older than 40 were blind, and an additional 2.4 million were visually impaired as a result of diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, cataracts or glaucoma. The numbers are expected to double over the next 30 years.

Dobelle, who was born in Pittsfield, Mass., applied for his first patent at the age of 13. That was for artificial hip improvements he developed with his father, Martin, who was an orthopedic surgeon.

The youth began his studies at Vanderbilt University at age 14 and built an X-ray machine in 1956.

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate from the University of Utah.

Dobelle later became director of the artificial organs division at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

He developed much of the work on his vision system at the Dobelle Institute, which he founded in New York in the 1980s.

He is survived by his wife, Claire; a son, Martin; two daughters, Molly and Mimi; and a brother, Evan.


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