• Extreme Vision: Science Fiction or Truth

    • Aug 16, 2017

    Science fiction is deeply linked to the evolution of both science and technology. It adds invented scenarios to real world developments, creating settings and characters that are both utterly fantastic and believable. It is this combination that gives us the sense that modern advances in medicine have been predicted by books, television or movies. What is the real relationship between ophthalmology and science fiction? Let's find out.

    Medicine and SciFi

    Medicine was first introduced to science fiction by Mary Shelley in 1818. Her character, Victor Frankenstein, was written as a scientist, but was re-invented in 1935 as a medical doctor and has remained so in most modern portrayals. Although its estimated that only 4% of all science fiction has a medical theme, the majority of physician characters are like Dr. Frankenstein - untrustworthy, "mad scientists." An extremely unflattering archetype.

    • Star Trek Goes to Medical School

      In 1992 Johns Hopkins University reported that it used episodes from the science fiction television show "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in their curriculum. Instructors of first year medical students have found that teaching ethical issues and the doctor-patient relationship is easier when the patients in question are aliens or otherwise not tied to a student's personal bias.

    Enhancing Vision

    A common science fiction trope is to provide a character with devices that give them the ability to see more than the average person. In 1894, author John Jacob Astor IV was the first to provide his characters with a device that could see through solid objects. His novel, "A Journey in Other Worlds," appears to predict x-rays one year before their invention by Wilhelm Roentgen (1845-1923). Although x-ray vision goggles may not exist, augmented vision is possible through such devices as night vision and virtual reality goggles. 

    • Night Vision Goggles

      Night vision goggles (NVG) are one of the many modern inventions that give people the ability to enhance their own vision. The US Armed Forces developed NVGs in the decades after WWII and they are in regular use today. Toy versions are also commecially, like this example.

    • Google Glass

      Google Glass was a combination of wearable camera, telephone and computer. Although the product was never sold commercially, its capabilities showed that enhanced vision was no longer just science fiction.

    Replacing Vision

    In science fiction, replacing a character's eyes or vision completely is decribed as either "bionic" or "cyborg." Retinal implants appear for the first time in science fiction in the 1952 novel "The Space Merchants," by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. The first real implant into the visual cortex was accomplished in 1978 by William Dobelle. Today, several groups are working to create retinal implants, like those pictured, to provide vision to the blind.

    • The Six Million Dollar Man

      "The Six Million Dollar Man" was a television series based on the 1972 Martin Caidn novel, "Cyborg." The main character, Steve Austin, is given "bionic implants" to repair his legs, arms and left eye after a near fatal accident. In the television series, the enhanced eye could see infrared lights and provide telescopic vision.

    • Photovoltaic retinal prostheses

      These small black dots are actually the next wave in vision science. They are subretinal photovoltaic implants developed by the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory at Stanford University. Implants like these are being investigated to help stimulate the retina in persons with diseases that degenerate vision.


    Biometrics is any system that measures a person's unique physical traits in order to verify their identity. M. Alphonse Bertillon first suggested in 1886 that irises were unique enough to be used to identify criminals. Since then, eye biometrics could be found in science fiction. The first use of a retinal scanner in a movie was in 1982's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" which was released approximately one year after commercial retinal scanners became available on the market.

    • Bertillon's Iris Identification

      Bertillon was a criminologist who recommended that the police record a long list of physical measurements in order to positively identify repeat offenders. Many of his practices were adopted for a time, but today photography is his only technique still in use - what we call today the "mug shot." This image is from "Identification anthropometrique...une tableau chromatique des nuances de L'Iris Humain" by M. Alphonse Bertillon, published in 1893. Courtesy of the Arbittier Museum of Medical History.

    • Iris Scanner

      In 1987 ophthalmologists Leonard Flom, MD and Aran Safir, MD patented the first iris recognition system. For their work, Drs. Flom and Safir were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2013. This example is the IrisAccess EOU 3000 system manufactured by LG Electronics, c2001.