BrainPort V100 Can Help the Blind See
The FDA has just approved a remarkable aid for people who are completely blind. It is a sensor placed on the tongue that reinterprets visual signals from a camera mounted in eyeglasses. Although the BrainPort V100 is a bit clunky — there are the dark glasses to wear with a thick wire that leads to something like a lollipop in the mouth, all connected to a controller about the size of a smartphone — the unit clearly helps sightless people understand their environment.
A handheld controller powers the unit with a battery and allows the user to zoom in and out on his or her surroundings. The mouth sensor has 400 electrodes and interprets camera data to produce sensations described as bubbles or vibrations, which the brain can learn to understand. Trainers work closely with users, who need at least 10 hours of instruction over a two-week period to begin using the device successfully.
The camera produces black and white pixels to feed the electrodes. Objects that are light or white provide a strong stimulation through the electrodes, grayish tones provide less stimulation and black provides no stimulation. The company describes the display created on the tongue as Braille-like. Users can control the levels of stimulation and report that it can feel like sparkling water on the tongue.
Just as the brain can learn to interpret signals from a cochlear implant in the hearing impaired, the plasticity of the brain to interpret signals from the BrainPort V100 could be amazing over time.
The device is produced by a private company called Wicab Inc., which is headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin.
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