This podcast is about big ideas on how technology is making life better for people with vision loss.
Today’s big idea centers on the place where big ideas get born — the human brain. In today’s episode, Dr. Roberts and his guests explore theories of brain plasticity, sensory substitution, and sensory augmentation. Dr. Patricia Grant discusses the BrainPort, which uses sensory substitution in this case, the nerve fibers in the tongue, to send information to the brain instead of the optic nerve. Dr. John-Ross Rizzo is developing a device to be called the Sensory Halo, which is supported by sensory augmentation. Both guests share what is being learned about sensory substitution and augmentation through these technologies and how this understanding will help perfect future devices to enable people with vision impairment to see better.
The Big Takeaways:
The BrainPort is a headset device with a camera that picks up visual input as the eyes would. It uses the theory of sensory substitution by sending stimulation to the nerve fibers on the tongue. The device picks up visual formation in grayscale imagery: lighter areas of the images produce high stimulation on the tongue, while dark areas produce none. This contrast allows users to identify objects in their environment. The BrainPort device is meant for people who are blind so it’s not crowding out a person’s residual vision. And surprisingly, both users who are congenitally blind and users who have seen before and have a visual memory — have performed the same in clinical trials. This shows that users are not experiencing a memory of sight. They are learning to interpret the camera’s image through stimulating the nerve fibers on their tongue. In the future, there are opportunities for collaboration between BrainPort and other technologies to continue to enhance the user experience to create more autonomy. Another device being developed that draws on some aspects of sensory augmentation is the Sensory Halo. Using a device with sensory augmentation is more intuitive to use than a device that uses sensory substitution. The Sensory Halo is designed to empower the wearer by delivering key pieces of information to safely and independently navigate their environment.
“We put the brain port on him and started training him, and we were doing some mobility tasks...And I was walking around the room and he would just scan the room. Then all of a sudden, I could feel when he perceived me.” — Dr. Patricia Grant “The great thing about the BrainPort is that it gives a person their own sense. It’s something that they can experience on their own, and that is of great value to a person who is blind.” — Dr. Patricia Grant “Simply put, I just want to amplify your existing senses and augment what I can give to you right now so that you can have a richer experience.” — Dr. John-Ross Rizzo
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Lighthouse Guild BrainPort Assistive Technology & Advanced Wearables by John-Ross Rizzo, MD, MSCI
Patricia Grant, PhD, Director of Clinical Research, Wicab, Inc.
Dr. Grant joined Wicab, Inc. as Director of Clinical Research in February 2014. She previously served as Co-Investigator for Wicab’s FDA clinical trial and currently serves as the Principal Investigator of a clinical trial, funded by the US Department of Defense, investigating the safety and efficacy of the BrainPort for people who have been blinded by traumatic injury. Her future research goals include demonstrating the value of the BrainPort in the workplace, in addition to teaching spatial concepts to children. Prior to joining Wicab, Dr. Grant was the Director of Research at the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind and Visually Impaired and a Research Specialist in the Low Vision Research and the Applied Physic