FDA Approves Tech That Helps Blind People "See" With Their Tongue

Wicab, Inc.

Back in January, IFLScience reported on the invention of a device that effectively allows deaf people to “hear” with their tongue. This was made possible by using a system that converts sounds into distinct vibrational patterns that can be felt by the tongue and interpreted by the user. Now, even more people could benefit from such technologies, as the FDA has just approved a gadget that helps blind people “see” in a similar way.

Produced by U.S. company Wicab, Inc., the BrainPort V100 is designed to be used alongside other aides, such as a guide dog, in order to help blind individuals orient themselves. It works by recording a person’s surroundings using a video camera attached to a pair of dark glasses and then converting these captured images into electrical signals through a piece of software. These translated signals are then transmitted to a flat, electrode-studded mouthpiece, allowing images to be perceived as a tingling on the tongue, a bit like the sensation of popping candy.

Any white pixels that are picked up by the camera result in strong vibrations on the tongue, black don’t produce any stimulation, and grey is somewhere in the middle. According to the manufacturers, BrainPort V100 works in various different lighting conditions, and users can even zoom in using a hand-held device that also houses the battery, which provides a limited life of around three hours.

Of course, users won’t be able to start “seeing” with the gadget the first time they use it. It takes training to be able to learn how to process visual images in this way, roughly 10 hours of one-on-one sessions to learn how to interpret the sensory information properly. Over time, users can learn to decode the tingles to determine not only where objects are located and how they are positioned, but also their size, shape and whether they are moving.

The technology has been put through its paces in both congenitally blind individuals and those with acquired blindness. Out of the 74 subjects included in a clinical trial, 69% were able to successfully identify things in an object recognition test following one year of training. Some participants said that the mouthpiece tasted metallic and sometimes stung, but no one reported any serious side-effects from it.

“Medical device innovations like this have the potential to help millions of people,” William Maisel, chief scientist at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a statement. “It is important we continue advancing device technology to help blind Americans live better, more independent lives.”

As pointed out by The Washington Post, the technology was actually approved in Europe a couple of years ago, available across the U.K., Sweden, Italy and Germany. At the time, it set a user back around $10,000. 

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