Device uses touch as a substitute for sight

BrainPortV100 translates images to blind users
Device uses touch as a substitute for sight
Photos courtesy of Wicab Inc.

Imagine a pair of sunglasses with a tiny built-in video camera that captures objects and translates them to the wearer through electric stimulation on the tongue. If the BrainPortV100 sounds futuristic, it is–and it’s FDA-approved. Invented by the Middleton-based company Wicab Inc., the device is being used by individuals who are profoundly blind. It includes a hand-held controller connected to a lollipop-like sensor that receives the information and creates a picture via pixels on the tongue that the user can interpret by feeling, similar to braille.

Wicab CEO and chairman of the board Robert Beckman describes the stimulation as “Pop Rocks candy on your tongue.” The bubble-like patterns are interpreted as the shape, size, location and motion of the objects.

The research was developed in the 1960s, when Wicab’s late founder Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita’s neuroscience research focused on enabling the blind to “see with their brains.” The former University of Wisconsin-Madison professor founded the company in 1998. Today, his research lives on in the form of the BrainPortV100 and the BrainPort balance device. People suffering from chronic vestibular disorders can train with the non-therapeutic BrainPort balance device to improve their gait and postural stability. The company’s crown jewel, however, is the BrainPortV100.

“Our innovation over the last 10 years has literally been to translate Paul’s concept into something that is practical for daily use for every person that is profoundly blind,” says Beckman. With sights on expanding even further, the next generation BrainPortV100 will be hands-free with only a wire connecting the lollipop-shaped sensor to a headset.

Wicab’s future also involves driverless car technology. Beckman says this technology allows a vehicle “to stay in lanes, avoid impacts and follow signs.” These capabilities could be infused with BrainPort technology to help users even further.

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