BLIND for the past 20 years due to a degenerative eye disease, Dianne Ashworth saw splinters of light and dark - and then larger splotches - when she became the first patient to test an early prototype bionic eye in Melbourne last month.
Researchers watching for Ms Ashworth's reaction via video link in an adjacent room held their collective breath as the bionic eye was activated, having worked for years to develop the technology and ensure its safety.
The big moment came after Ms Ashworth - who has retinitis pigmentosa - had surgery in May to implant 24 electrodes behind the retina of one of her eyes.
About 150 people working on the project fervently hoped that sending electrical impulses to the electrodes would stimulate nerves in Ms Ashworth's retina and allow her to experience some sight - but it wasn't until her eye had recovered from surgery that they were able to definitively test the theory.
''I was waiting, waiting,'' she said. ''I had these goggles on [to track her eye movement] and I didn't know what to expect. I don't know if anyone did.
''Then all of a sudden I could see a little flash. It was like a little splinter … then that turned into splotches of black and white.''
A researcher controlling the electrical impulses did a silent fist pump to colleagues in the next room as Ms Ashworth described the changing shapes she could see as a result.
''I remember when the first big image came, I thought, 'wow','' Ms Ashworth said.
''I was ecstatic that it worked, but I was also so happy for the team. It was something I could give to them after all the work they'd done. That made me happier than seeing.''
Over the next year, researchers will work with Ms Ashworth and two other patients to test what they can see when impulses are sent to each of the electrodes. The feedback will allow researchers to study how the brain reacts and develop a more sophisticated device so patients can build up a perception of objects in front of them - such as doorways or tables.
Currently researchers send electrical impulses from an external processing unit, which is plugged into a device Ms Ashworth wears on the back of her ear. But the system will ultimately be portable and a microchip implanted in the patient's eye to receive information, via radio frequency signals, of images captured by a camera mounted on a pair of glasses.
Bionic Vision Australia director Anthony Burkitt said establishing the success of the early prototype was an important milestone, with patients now ''able to tell us directly what they are seeing so we can speed up development of something that is going to be useful in their everyday life''.
While other scientific teams around the world are working on bionic eye technology and some have implanted devices behind the retina, the Australian team said they were the first to implant into a position known as the suprachoroidal space, which they believe will provide long-term stability.
Bionics Institute director Rob Shepherd said finally seeing the technology at work was ''just magic'' and compared it to the day in 1978 when Melbourne researchers switched on the first version of the Cochlear implant to restore a patient's hearing.
''The whole team has been empowered by this,'' he said.
''This research is going to leapfrog competing teams and provide important feedback about a visually impaired person's perception of electrical stimulation of the retinal ganglion cells of the optic nerve.''
It also means Ms Ashworth may finally have an answer for her son, who she said regularly asked her as a child, ''Will you ever be able to see me, mum?''
''I would say 'yes', because I've always believed there would be something. He said 'when, by about 30?' I said 'yeah, when you're about 30'. He's now 28. So who knows?''