IEEE Members in the News: Innovators in Biotechnology

The following members have made advances in biotechnology

7 February 2008

IEEE members are making advances in biotechnology, and several of their efforts garnered recent media attention.

Contact Lenses Immerse Users in a Virtual World

Race-car drivers may one day wear contact lenses that allow them to see a computer image of their speed as a number seemingly projected on their windshield. Video-game players might wear the lenses and find themselves surrounded by scenery and opponents, as if they were “in” the game. Others could use the lenses to surf the Internet though a virtual display that only they see.

IEEE Associate Member Harvey Ho and researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle are working to develop contact lenses that allow users to see computer-generated images superimposed on the world around them. The researchers presented their results at the IEEE International Conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems on 17 January in Tucson, Ariz. Their work was detailed in a 21 January report on MSNBC’s Web site.

A prototype of the lenses includes the electronic circuits, a tiny antenna for wireless communication, and red LEDs.

Rabbits wore the lenses for 20 minutes with no ill effects, but researchers have not received permission to test the lenses on humans.

For more information, visit

Prosthesis Rivals Human Limb

Several IEEE members in different organizations are cooperating on a project to develop a prosthetic limb that closely mimics the look, feel, and movement of a human arm and hand. Their work was featured in an article published on 10 December in Design News.

Launched in 2005, the Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the central R&D organization of the U.S. Department of Defense. The project seeks to develop a prosthetic arm that will benefit its veterans who are amputees.

IEEE Member Stuart D. Harshbarger and his team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, in Laurel, Md., are leading the effort. The team presented two prototypes of the prosthetic arm in August. Each had a five-fingered hand, tactile sensors in the fingertips, a rotatable wrist, with some external power sources.

Ultimately, the limb will be fully self-contained, with all components and power sources enclosed within it, Harshbarger told Design News. “Yet the weight must be comparable to that of the human arm—about 7 pounds,” he said in the article.

The engineers work together on the project using a virtual interface, as well as a wireless interface in the prosthesis that communicates with the virtual system. For example, researchers at the APL, which is developing the arm, can move the prosthesis, and that same motion appears on computer screens in other locations.

Jonathan Kuniholm, an engineer and U.S. Marine who lost his arm in Iraq, used the virtual interface to test the arm, and he was able to control the prototype limb within 45 minutes from the time it was attached.

Much work remains, however. IEEE Member Michael Goldfarb, a professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., is exploring a system that uses hydraulics, instead of electromechanical actuators, to propel the prosthesis into motion.

Senior Member Todd Kuiken, director of amputee services at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, is developing a procedure to surgically attach the arm so the patient could better control its movement. The surgeon would reroute nerves from the residual limb to the chest area. When the amputee contracts chest muscles, electrodes on the chest would sense the activity and convert it to control signals for the arm.

Unfortunately, surface electrodes can provide only four channels for controlling the arm, because signals are prone to cross talk. To allow for more signals, Senior Member Philip Troyk, director of the neural engineering program at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, is developing a system with implantable myoelectric sensors about the size of a grain of rice.

Meanwhile, the engineers are also researching other sensory feedback and neural interface mechanisms to give prosthesis wearers a sense of temperature, pressure, and vibration.

Researchers say they expect the prosthetic arm to be completed by the end of 2009.


Robot Keeps Heart Beating During Surgery

Also featured in the 10 December issue of Design News was IEEE Member Cameron Riviere. The associate research professor at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, invented a tiny robot that can crawl across the surface of the human heart.

Surgeons could place Riviere’s device, called the HeartLander, on the surface of the heart and control it with a joystick. The device could be used to burn away diseased tissue, inject drugs, or stimulate the heart muscle with electrodes to keep it beating during surgery. It also would be equipped with magnetic tracking sensors so a surgeon could follow the robot’s path on a display.

A lot of work needs to be done before the system is ready for clinical trial. However, the device could be used someday for a number of procedures, including implanting pacemakers.

For more information about the prosthesis and the robot, visit

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