Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Seeing With Your Tongue? This isn't Science Fiction, Folks

"Seeing with your tongue: BrainPort device brings sight to the blind "
Wisconsin State Journal (May 20, 2009)

"Roger Behm lost his sight at 16, the victim of an inherited disease that destroyed his retinas. Both of his eyes were surgically removed.

"Now 55, Behm has made himself at home in a sightless world. He started his own business in Janesville selling devices that help the blind cope with day-to-day tasks. He and his wife have raised five children and just adopted another child from China who is also blind. He fishes, canoes, camps and scuba dives.

"But Behm can remember seeing. Which is why he couldn’t believe it when, three years ago, he slipped a device over his head, turned it on, and was once again able to discern light and dark, shapes and shadows, letters and numbers, and even a rolling golf ball.

You'll be able to get BrainPort commercially by the end of the year, according to this article. It's a gadget that takes data from a video camera and feeds it into the user's brain via the tongue.

My guess is that a person couldn't use it while eating: but apart from that it sounds quite useful.

Erik Weihenmayer, another person who lost sight in his teens, likes BrainPort. He uses it to hike in the woods, play tic-tac-toe with his daughter, and pet his dog.

The article does a quick overview of the science involved - basically, that the brain can sort out data from non-standard sources, to get sensory input.

This year's model of the BrainPort is black-and-white, which is better than nothing.

What impresses me about BrainPort is that it is essentially external: a video camera on sunglasses, something you put on your tongue, and a small control unit. I suspect that high-resolution, color imagery may require something implanted in or near the brain - but we'll see how that works out.

Kudos to Paul Bach-y-Rita, his brother George, and everyone else who worked on the project.

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