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Stevie Wonder's Camera Finally Arrives

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Back when "Saturday Night Live" might have as many as two funny sketches in a single show (that would be 26 years ago), it presented a faux ad for the "Kannon AE-1," a camera so simple even Stevie Wonder could use it.

The upshot was that the blind musician, shown taking photos of tennis great John Newcombe, couldn't really use the camera properly. (We'd show it to you, but NBC Universal prefers we didn't.)

Roughly around the time of that skit's debut, Elizabeth Goldring at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, started work on a "seeing machine" for the blind. Goldring — who describes herself as being on "the brink of deep blindness" — developed a device that initially cost $100,000 and was pretty large. Next came a $4,000 desktop unit, which opened up words and the Internet to the blind — a black-and-white world previously closed to them.

And now, there's a portable "camera," about 5 inches square and mounted on a tripod, that she says can go out the door for $500.

"Seeing machine" is a bit of a misnomer. What it does is project an image directly onto the retina of an eye past hemorrhages or other damage that block sight. It's based on something called a "scanning laser ophthalmoscope," which is both bulky and thanks to the helium-neon laser, expensive.

Goldring, however, besides being an "artist, poet and senior fellow," is also somewhat of a collaborator. She started working with a variety of technical types, ranging from the scanning laser ophthalmoscope's inventor, Rob Webb, to a trio of current MIT students, to develop a pocket version. One big breakthrough first seen in the desktop unit came from using light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, instead of a laser, to make the intense light needed.

An actual digital camera takes a snapshot, which sends the visual data to a liquid crystal display lit up by the LEDs, which then focuses the data into a single point to shine on the retina. "This is not magnification," a release from MIT quotes postdoc Quinn Smithwick. "What makes this work is focusing the data into a tiny spot of light."

The Canon AE-1 — the product the SNL spoof was based on — really did aim to become a people's camera. (And the SLO used in research was on loan from Canon — go figure.) Goldring's next task is to do the same with her seeing machine, and tests and reviews of the device are reportedly planned for the Low Vision Clinic at the Joslin Diabetes Center's Beetham Eye Institute in Boston.