Device Lets the Tongue See

The Wicab BrainPort is a device that takes information gathered by a small digital camera in a pair of glasses and sends it to a "lollipop" electrode array that sits on your tongue. The device was designed to help people who are blind or who have extremely low vision.

The camera in the glasses transmits the light information to a small base unit the size of a cell phone, an article at Scientific American explains. The base unit converts the light information into electrical impulses; this replaces the function of the retina. The retina is the surface at the back of the eye that encodes light into nerve impulses and transmits them to the brain.

The base unit then sends that information into a set of 400 microelectrodes arranged on a lollipop-like paddle that you place on your tongue. The microelectrodes stimulate the nerves on the surface of your tongue. Users have likened the sensation to placing Pop Rocks candies on the tongue.

Although it seems incredible, the user's brain actually learns to interpret the tongue sensations as a kind of visual image. After all, your brain cannot "see" - it can only interpret the nerve impulses from your eyes and then create a picture that helps you move through a room, or find nearby objects.

The base unit has features like zoom control, light settings control and intensity. Using these controls, users can successfully use the BrainPort device to find doorways and elevator buttons and even read letters and numbers. At the table, users can easily see cups and forks; I suppose you'd take it out to eat.

SciFi movie fans find this technology truly tasty, ever since something like it was demonstrated by Doctor Emilio Lizardo (aka actor John Lithgow) in the 1984 cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension (see photo).

The BrainPort should be approved for market by the end of 2009; it will cost about $10,000 per machine. It has already been tested by the US Navy; learn how the BrainPort can be used by Navy Seals.

{{ video="LS_0908256_BrainPort" title="How it Works" caption="The Wicab BrainPort uses the tongue to sense incoming visual information,aimed at helping people who are blind or who have extremely low vision. Credit: Erik Weihenmayer & Serac Adventure Films" }}

This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of

Bill Christensen catalogues the inventions, technology and ideas of science fiction writers at his website, Technovelgy. He is a contributor to Live Science.