Wicab Makes Blind People See With Their Tongue

Wicab BrainPort

How could you possibly see with your tongue? Founded in 1998 by the late Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita to advance the research of sensory substitution devices, Wicab provides vision aid for the profoundly blind.

Albert-Einstein look-alike covering eyes with a flex tape
Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita began developing his vision aid technology in the 1960’s. – Photo credit: BrainPortTech Twitter

Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a pioneer in the fields of sensory substitution, started working on successfully transmitting visual information to blind individuals in the 1960’s. He created vibrating plates placed against their backs to recreate as best as possible their surroundings. “You don’t ‘see’ with your eyes, you ‘see’ with your brain,” he claimed.

In one sentence, Wicab now helps blind patients with orientation, mobility, and object recognition using a tongue display unit. Named BrainPort V100, the vision aid device is composed of a pair of sunglasses, a stamp-sized tongue array, and a hand-held controller.

A video camera is mounted on the sunglasses to photograph in real time the user’s surroundings. On its website, Wicab explains, “The camera works in a variety of lighting conditions and has an adjustable field of view. The tongue array contains 400 electrodes and is connected to the glasses via a flexible cable so it can’t be dropped and lost.”

Basically, the pixels seen by the camera are translated and sent to the tongue array – or the lollipop, as patients call it – which then provides electro-tactile stimulation on the surface of the tongue. You could say that it gently vibrates.

“Users feel moving bubble-like patterns on their tongue which they learn to interpret as the shape, size, location, and motion of objects in their environment,” the company reveals on its website.

Black pixels lead to no stimulation, whereas white pixels lead to a strong shock and gray levels provoke medium levels stimulation. The level of stimulation can be adjusted with the remote control, which can also zoom and change the contrast.

Wicab BrainPort
As the camera is scanning what is in front of the user, the part of the tongue array where the mug is being reflected will vibrate to indicate the presence of an object. – Image credit: Wicab

The tongue display unit comes with two reusable lithium batteries with charger. The system can run up to three hours on a single charge.

BrainPort V100 is the first vision aid model – and currently the only one – of the company on the market. It received approval for consumer use in 2015, after almost twenty years of research. At that time, the price of the device was $10,000 but it has now dropped to $7,995, we can learn on WisconsinAcademy.org.

A 10-hour training is required before patients can use the device on their own. Over the course of three days, several one-on-one sessions will teach candidates how to interpret the sensory information displayed to them through the lollipop.

Blind Man, experimenting wicab tech, pointing at several objects, A plastic banana
Patients are trained to recognize different objects and grab them without touching the other ones. – Photo credit: BrainPortTech Twitter

According to the Middleton-headquartered company, it only takes a few hours for users to be capable of interpreting spatial information and pointing to different shapes. Once the training is completed, they can identify familiar objects and avoid obstacles.

A current user quoted on Wicab.com explained, “If I look at a sidewalk, I feel a strip of space in front of me with stimulation on either side and if there’s some object on the sidewalk like a person, I feel stimulation on my tongue in the middle of that strip of space.”

This wearable device does not give patients their sight back but is a true life-changing product. Athlete Erik Weihenmayer – the first blind person who reached the summit of Mount Everest – has been using BrainPort V100 for about ten years. In a video published on the Touch The Top YouTube channel in 2009, the rock climber described how it felt to use the BrainPort as he was discovering its benefits, “It’s just a trip for me to be able to look at a hold and reach for it. To me, it’s beyond science. It’s a wild experience.”

Doctor and BrainPort Representative Aimee Arnoldussen stated, “The information is the same whether you collect it from your eyes or from our camera with the tongue display. [Erik Weihenmayer] knows a lot about his environment already through the sense of sound and touch, and this adds one more piece to the puzzle.”

Wicab says that good candidates for its vision aid device are people who have completed conventional blind rehabilitation training and are comfortable using conventional assistive tools, such as canes. “Like learning a new language or participating in a sport, on-going practice is required to increase skills acquired through the use of BrainPort V100.”

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