Objective. We present a holographic near-the-eye display system enabling optical approaches for sight restoration to the blind, such as photovoltaic retinal prosthesis, optogenetic and other photoactivation techniques. We compare it with conventional liquid crystal displays (LCD) or digital light processing (DLP)-based displays in terms of image quality, field of view, optical efficiency and safety. Approach. We detail the optical configuration of the holographic display system and its characterization using a phase-only spatial light modulator. Main results. We describe approaches to controlling the zero diffraction order and speckle related issues in holographic display systems and assess the image quality of such systems. We show that holographic techniques offer significant advantages in terms of peak irradiance and power efficiency, and enable designs that are inherently safer than LCD or DLP-based systems. We demonstrate the performance of our holographic display system in the assessment of cortical response to alternating gratings projected onto the retinas of rats. Significance. We address the issues associated with the design of high brightness, near-the-eye display systems and propose solutions to the efficiency and safety challenges with an optical design which could be miniaturized and mounted onto goggles.