A scientific breakthrough may eventually allow many blind people to see. A handful of volunteers are already seeing the promise of a new device, about 18 months into a five-year clinical study.
One of those volunteers is Jason Esterhuizen. The South African lost his sight in a car accident when he was 23 years old.
"Lost control of the car," Esterhuizen said. "The car hit the curve and I just hit the steering wheel and the window and went out the sunroof."
Injuries from the crash left Esterhuizen in a world of total darkness.
"I think in the first couple of years of being blind it was just you have to accept the fact that you're blind," he said.
That changed when a friend of his heard about a clinical trial only for people who could once see but became blind, starting half a world away at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Nader Pouratian leads the study of an experimental device called the Orion.
Here's how it works. Using a camera attached to a pair of sunglasses, Orion captures images a person would see and then sends the data through a handheld device to an implant that's been surgically inserted into the visual part of the brain. The implant then turns those images into dots of light the patient can see.
"It can be various shapes, it could be a circle, it could be an oval," Pouratian said. "It could be a moving line."
Esterhuizen is one of only six people in the world who qualified for the study to receive the implant.
"The first time that I saw a little white dot, I was speechless," Esterhuizen said. "It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
While not restoring sight in the traditional sense, what he can "see" are flashes of light.
"If I look around, I can perceive movement, I can see some light and dark," Esterhuizen said. "I can tell you whether a line is vertical or horizontal or at a 45-degree angle."
The device not only allowed Esterhuizen to regain a small part of his vision, but some true independence.
"I cook, I clean. I can take out the trash," Esterhuizen said. "I can sort laundry, but just the darks from the lights. No color yet."
It even helps him in going for a stroll outside by himself.
"If I look down, I can see flashing lights," he said.
In fact, the study has gone so well in Esterhuizen's case that sometimes even he doesn't realize how amazing it's been. Esterhuizen was nonchalantly telling Pouratian about a night when he was at a dark bar and could see the bartender, in a white shirt, walking toward him.
"And I just saw two little dots lighting up and then three and then five. Then she was right in front of me and she was all shiny and I thought, wow that's cool."
"And I said, 'Do you realize what you just said?!'" Pouratian said.
It's a glimpse into the future that could give countless people a second chance at sight.
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