The FDA Approves a Device That Lets Blind People 'See' With Their Tongues


The FDA has given the green light to a device that helps blind people recognize visual stimuli using their mouths. The BrainPort V100 includes a pair of sunglasses equipped with a video camera with a small electrode pad attached by a cord and an iPhone-sized control pad.

The video camera converts visual imagery to electrical signals that the user feels on their tongue. The stimulation varies based on the color of things on the low-resolution grayscale image from the video. White pixels become a strong stimulation, gray pixels medium stimulation, and black pixels no stimulation.

The user holds the device against his or her tongue, translating the lines and shapes traced by its 400 electrodes into images in the brain, almost like an electric version of Braille. (See it at work in this video from the BBC, featuring a blind rock climber using the device.)

“Users report the sensation as pictures that are painted on the tongue with tiny bubbles,” according to Wicab, the Wisconsin-based company that makes the product. The device does take some getting used to; the company recommends at least 10 hours of training with it. And users report some negative side effects, like a metallic taste or stinging associated with the electrode pad. 

But for some, it does provide the ability to recognize visuals through a series of vibrations on the tongue. In research, 69 percent of users were able to successfully recognize objects after one year of training with the BrainPort V100. The FDA foresees this device being able to help millions of people. The National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute projects that there will be 2.1 million Americans who are blind by 2030, up from 1.2 million in 2010. 

Newfound sight doesn’t come cheap, though. The device is commercially available, but costs around $10,000. 

[h/t: Popular Science]

All images courtesy Wicab Inc.