Wednesday, November 24, 2004

USB Port to the Brain

This is fricking amazing. To be able to "see" through your toungue. Or to feel, or to hear. The plasticity of the brain is truly incredible. More examples at the BrainPort website.

The BrainPort is nearing commercialization. Two years ago, the University of Wisconsin patented the concept and exclusively licensed it to Wicab Inc., a company formed by Dr. Bach-y-Rita to develop and market BrainPort devices. Robert Beckman, the company president, said units should be available a year from now.

"We see with the brain, not with the eyes," Dr. Bach-y-Rita said. "You can lose your retina but you do not lose the ability to see as long as your brain is intact."

Mr. Weihenmayer, a 35-year-old adventurer who climbed to the summit of Mount Everest two years ago, recently tried another version of the BrainPort, a hard hat carrying a small video camera. Visual information from the camera was translated into pulses that reached his tongue.

He found doorways, caught balls rolling toward him and with his small daughter played a game of rock, paper and scissors for the first time in more than 20 years. Mr. Weihenmayer said that, with practice, the substituted sense gets better, "as if the brain were rewiring itself."

Blind people who have used the device do not report lasting effects. But they are amazed by what they can see. Mr. Weihenmayer said the device at first felt like candy pop rocks on his tongue. But that sensation quickly gave way to perceptions of size, movement and recognition.
The potential applications to this are unlimited. X-ray vision, being able to see in the infrared spectrum, night vision, super hearing. I wonder if our brains could even handle echo-location ala dolphins and bats. But of course the billion dollar idea is entertainment and video games.
Sensory substitution technology may eventually help millions of people overcome their sensory disabilities. But the devices may also have more frivolous uses: in video games, for example.

Dr. Raj said the tongue unit had already been tried out in a game that involved shooting villains. "In two minutes you stop feeling the buzz on your tongue and get a visual representation of the bad guy," he said. "You feel like you have X-ray vision. Unfortunately it makes the game boring."
via New York Times

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