Brainport: The Technology That Lets Blind People See Using Their Tongue

A blind woman sits in a chair wearing a video camera focused on a scientist sitting in front of her. She has a device in her mouth, touching her tongue, and there are wires running from that device to the video camera. The woman has been blind since birth and doesn't really know what a rubber ball looks like, but the scientist is holding one. When he suddenly rolls it in her direction, she puts out a hand to stop it. The blind woman saw the ball — through her tongue. Well, not exactly through her tongue, but the device in her mouth sent visual input through her tongue in much the same way that seeing individuals receive visual input through the eyes. In both cases, the initial sensory input mechanism — the tongue or the eyes — sends the visual data to the brain, where that data is processed and interpreted to form images. Most of us are familiar with the substitution of one sense for another. Eyeglasses are a typical example of sensory augmentation. Braille is a typical example of sensory substitution. In this case, you're using one sense — touch — to take in information normally intended for another sense — vision. Test results for the BrainPort vision device are encouraging, but clinical trials have yet to be performed. According to the University of Washington Department of Ophthalmology, 100 million people in the United States alone suffer from visual impairment. This might be age-related, including cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration, from diseases like trachoma, diabetes or HIV, or the result of eye trauma from an accident. BrainPort could provide vision-impaired people with limited forms of sight.