We are currently accepting new subjects for the BrainPort research project. If you are blind with no light perception and are interested in participating, please contact Ed Pei at (212) 821-9496 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Subjects must agree to use Brainport at home for at least five hours per week and to return to the Lighthouse for testing every three months. Subjects who qualify will be compensated for their time. Read on for more information about BrainPort.
Researchers Test Breakthrough Sensory Device to Help Visually Impaired "See" with Their Tongues
What if you could see with your tongue? Several Lighthouse International clients are doing just that to navigate their world with greater confidence, be more secure in daily life activities, and even read.
Using BrainPort, a breakthrough by Wicab, Inc., subjects wear sunglasses with a small camera wired to a small flat mouthpiece that sends electrical pulses to the wearer's tongue. Feeling like carbonated bubbles, the pulses transmit the shape of the object seen by the camera, allowing the user to "see" what is before him or her. A hand-held control boosts the intensity of the pulses from mild to stronger, zooms in or out, and increases the contrast of objects making them easier to sense.
Dr. William Seiple, Vice President for Research and Director of the Arlene R. Gordon Research Institute at Lighthouse International, is one of three leading researchers testing BrainPort nationally. "Testing ground-breaking technology to improve the quality of life of sight-impaired people is the core of our mission," Dr. Seiple says. Early findings are highly encouraging. While not yet FDA approved, this device holds significant promise.
The device gives testers Albert and Nihal a new sense of their surroundings and what's possible for blind people. Albert, 45, a former elementary school principal, lost his eyesight three years ago to fungal meningitis. Nihal, 26, an avid swimmer and runner, has been blind since age seven due to congenital glaucoma.
Nihal says, "I was reading Braille since I was seven and learned what was around me by feeling with my hands. When I read Braille, my hand and brain work together. With BrainPort, my tongue and brain work together." Dr. Seiple notes, "Using BrainPort successfully is a matter of training and practice. Subjects must relearn to interpret what they are feeling with their tongue as objects in their environments." Users can successfully begin identifying images within 15 minutes.
Teaching the Tongue to "See"
Beginning with simple tasks like picking up and identifying large objects in the shape of a cube, a cone or sphere, Dr. Seiple gradually increased the complexity to larger movements, like navigating around hallways and rooms. "At first, I didn't expect the device to be such a great help," Dr. Seiple recalls. "I was surprised that subjects could ‘read' large printed letters. I didn't think BrainPort would be such an effective special resolutions tool."
BrainPort appears to be surpassing expectations. "I recognized shapes on the first day," Nihal recalls. "I was shocked because I could experience so much more than I thought I could. We kept pushing what I could do---starting with identifying 3-D shapes, later we moved to identifying large letters. I can now read letters that are four inches high and numbers on large playing cards." While Nihal can easily differentiate between 7 and 8, she is sometimes confused by 3 and 8. Tongue fatigue can also occur, making it harder to discern shapes. Nihal's reading accuracy is so excellent that Dr. Seiple blindfolded her to make sure she was not using her eyes.
The device has also helped Albert and Nihal at mealtime. "One thing that drives me crazy as a blind person is the possibility of knocking something over," says Albert. BrainPort has successfully helped him to locate objects on the table without hitting something inadvertently. Nihal has used BrainPort to differentiate a spoon from a fork with little effort. She was also able to find her napkin, intentionally dropped on the floor, as part of testing. Both are excited about using the device in daily living.
Navigating Without a Cane or Dog
BrainPort can also be a useful navigational tool beyond a cane or guide dog. Albert's guide dog rested while Albert put on BrainPort and headed into the hall, accompanied by Dr. Seiple. Using a laptop computer that showed the black and white pixilated images Albert's camera was seeing, Dr. Seiple monitored the effectiveness of BrainPort and Albert's ability to translate objects through the sensor.
Albert easily found the doorknob, identified the edge of a wall poster, and turned the corner to the elevator, while giving feedback to Dr. Seiple. Albert reported, "When the hallway ended, the stimulus on my tongue stopped. I have to think about positive and negative space and what the sensation on my tongue is for each."
He reflects, "I was amazed that I could walk down the hall so comfortably. BrainPort is an important addition to other aides, like a cane or seeing-eye dog. It's great to move through a room without fear of bumping into things."
To teach subjects to navigate better, Dr. Seiple set up obstacles (large cardboard boxes and people) for Albert and Nihal to maneuver around. Nihal exceeded Dr. Seiple's expectations, achieving 50% success rate in avoiding the objects. She has improved significantly since she started, and when she slows down, she increases her success rate.
The testers have even ventured out of doors with Dr. Seiple to try BrainPort on the bustling 59th Street sidewalk. However, the outside stimulus created an overload for the sensors. Both Nihal and Albert had difficulty focusing on one object to get a clear image to make sense of their surroundings. "There was so much going on," says Albert. "it felt like an army of ants marching across my tongue." As a result, Dr. Seiple believes that BrainPort works better where there are fewer stimuli.
Nihal and Albert find that participating in the BrainPort trials provides a window into the possibility of greater independence. Nihal reflects, "I hope to use it to read to my children one day." Albert says, "I'd love to use it to drive a car, or just play cards with my nieces and nephews without having them cheat. This technology let's you see the hope."