When one of the senses is lost, an extremely effective coping mechanism involves hijacking other senses to fill the same role. Usually, hearing and touch are used in place of sight, but an MIT researcher named Gershon Dublon is using the tongue as a way to convey spatial and directional data to the blind. Dublon’s own tongue has been the testbed up until recently, but now the project is progressing to the point where 12 subjects will be using this Arudino-based tool to navigate.
Dubbed “Tongueduino,” this small Arduino system uses a grid of electrodes attached to the tongue to express various forms of input. In the video below, whisker analogs are shown as one method of converting tactile feedback into the system. When attached to magnetic sensors, it could even use the magnetic field of the earth and objects around the subject to convey information about direction and obstacles.
While the video shows a 3×3 grid, the latest implementation features a much higher resolution 5×5 grid. Because the human tongue is so finely tuned and capable of adapting quickly, the user won’t even need substantial training. In an article from New Scientist, Dublon says that “you could just put this on and start to perceive.”
Humans are incredibly visually focused, so this guidance based on electromagnetism seems a bit farfetched on the surface. However, when you consider how other creatures use systems surprisingly similar to this, Tongueduino starts to sound a lot less silly. Some birds use an innate detection of the Earth’s magnetic field to aid in seasonal migration. Sharks use electroreception to sense electromagnetic fields produced by living creatures throughout the sea. For the blind, being able to navigate the world around them using electromagnetic sensors and a small tongue-pad would be a godsend.
This is in a very early stage of development, but it is promising. MIT has astounding talent and resources. If the research continues to be fruitful, we can expect better implementations. Perhaps newer versions could offer the visually impaired live data about their surroundings while being minimally invasive. The sensor strip in the video is bulky, but a wireless system similar in appearance to a retainer would be perfect. To the outside world, it would be unnoticeable, and it would sit comfortably in the mouth. This isn’t quite as exciting as perfectly restored sight, but allowing more autonomy to the visually impaired can drastically improve their lives.
[Image credit: Michael Glasgow]