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The “seeing-eye tongue”

Researchers are the University of Wisconsin have developed what is surely the weirdest visual aid ever: A device that lets the blind see — by using their tongues. As a story in The Science News reports:

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin¬≠Madison are developing this tongue-stimulating system, which translates images detected by a camera into a pattern of electric pulses that trigger touch receptors. The scientists say that volunteers testing the prototype soon lose awareness of on-the-tongue sensations. They then perceive the stimulation as shapes and features in space. Their tongue becomes a surrogate eye. …

“You don’t see with the eyes. You see with the brain,” contends [Wisconsin neuroscientist and physician Paul Bach-y-Rita]. An image, once it reaches an eye’s retina, “becomes nerve pulses no different from those from the big toe,” he says.

People who’ve tried it out — including sighted people who wear blindfolds — describe the tongue sensations as “tingling or bubbling”. The only problem right now is that the tongue sensor can only output signals with three levels of gradation; the eye can perceive regions that are 1,000 times brighter than the dimmest ones. And the grid that lays on your tongue is only 12 pixels by 12 pixels — pretty low resolution. But, if you’re blind, better than nothing.

There’s some sort of joke/pun to be made here using the phrase “I’d give my eye teeth”, but I can’t figure out what it is.

(Thanks to Matthew’s SelfUnfocused for this one!)


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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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