Current Issue
This Month's Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

1 minute read

How Wicab's BrainPort Technology Gives Sight To The Blind

Goal: Give sight to the blind


Project: Wicab's "BrainPort"


THESIS
Seeing happens in the brain, where visual information is processed. So if a person's eyes don't work, visual information can be channeled to the brain through another body part—like the tongue.

METHOD
A camera image must be transformed into something users can feel—and then "see" inside their heads. "It's like drawing a picture on your tongue," says Wicab CEO Robert Beckman.

RESULTS
The brain almost immediately processes electrical impulses as images. But the images are grainy; learning to use them takes practice. After 25 hours of training, test subjects have been able to differentiate objects, like a mug from a Magic Marker, with 80% accuracy; read individual words on flash cards; and navigate a 15-foot hallway.

REMAINING CHALLENGES

1. Improve hardware
The BrainPort has a handheld remote, so a user can adjust contrast and brightness. The remote needs fine-tuning—more streamlined control knobs and greater durability for the stresses of everyday use.

2. Cut that wire
Big problem: "You have this wire hanging out of your mouth," Beckman says. Doing away with it would make the device more comfortable.

3. Simplify what's seen
"If you display the exact information from the video camera, the information may be cluttered and difficult to use," Beckman says. Software must be refined so the camera highlights only what's most important.

The somatosensory cortex [1] in the brain processes information sensed using touch. When blind people use the BrainPort, both the somatosensory cortex and the visual cortex [2]—usually active when the eyes are used—process the information sent through the tongue.

FUTURE PLANS
The BrainPort is currently undergoing an FDA study, which should be finished in 2013. If the company gets clearance, the device could be released by 2014.

illustration by Crystal Chou

A version of this article appeared in the June 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.