New Tech Lets Blind People See With Their Tongues

by Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie

If you sit too long thinking about your tongue, you're bound to start feeling weird about it. It's got that flat but also bumpy, slimy, pink thing going on; plus, it's responsible not only for all the positive sensations you experience when you eat things like pizza, but also all the horrible ones you experience when you eat raisins (aka the Devil's food). Well, hold on to your hats folks, because your tongue just got weirder: The FDA just approved BrainPort V100, a new pieces of technology that helps blind people "see" with their tongues. My initial response was twofold: First, science is awesome! And second, OMG, what the fresh hell does that mean?

Here's the deal: The new tongue-assisted-vision technology is coming on the heels of a device invented at the University of Colorado that allowed people with certain kinds of deafness to "hear" with their tongues. While the tongue-hearing tool doesn't allow its users to hear in the strictly traditional sense — hence the quotation marks — it does work by converting sound waves into distinct patterns of tongue vibrations, which can in turn be translated into words or emotions.

The vision tool, called the BrainPort V100 (who names these things? I think TongueVision would be much more marketable) works similarly. The user wears a pair of dark glasses with a video camera attached to them, and those images are converted to electrical signals which are transmitted to the user via a studded mouthpiece that registers different degrees of vibration based upon levels of light. White pixels result in a strong vibration, black pixels result in no vibration, and pixels that come in shades of grey are somewhere in the middle.

Users are intended to utilize the BrainPort along with other assisted technologies like guide dogs in order to orient themselves in space. The device requires a certain degree of training (so users can learn to interpret the tongue vibrations correctly), but in a study of 74 users, 69 percent of individuals were able to successfully identify objects after a year of training. The longer the individuals trained, the more likely they became to be able to ascertain an object's position, shape, size, and whether or not is was moving.

Practice makes perfect in all kinds of brain training, which is probably how I've managed to conjure up all my willpower to write this entire piece without making a joke about how I'd like to get to know some of these BrainPort users if they've really become that adept with their tongues.

It's cool. I hate myself for that one, too.

Image: rocketclips/Fotolia; Giphy