Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Blind Sight: The Next Generation of Sensory Substitution Technology

It’s long been known that blind people are able to compensate for their loss of sight by using other senses, relying on sound and touch to help them “see” the world. Neuroimaging studies have backed this up, showing that in blind people brain regions devoted to sight become rewired to process touch and sound as visual information.

Now, in the age of Google Glass, smartphones and self-driving cars, new technology offers ever more advanced ways of substituting one sensory experience for another. These exciting new devices can restore sight to the blind in ways never before thought possible.

A female blind user wearing the vOICe. The small covert camera is inside the video sunglasses, and the notebook PC running software is in the backpack.

A female blind user wearing the voice. The small covert camera is inside the sunglasses, and the notebook PC running software is in the backpack. At bottom, a representation of the aural landscape produced by the device. 

Seeing with the Ears

One approach is to use sound as a stand-in for vision. In a study published in Current Biology, neuroscientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem used a “sensory substitution device” dubbed “the vOICe” (Oh, I See!) to enable congenitally blind patients to see using sound. The device translates visual images into brief bursts of music, which the participants then learn to decode.

Over a series of training sessions they learn, for example, that a short, loud synthesizer sound signifies a vertical line, while a longer burst equates to a horizontal one. Ascending and descending tones reflect the corresponding directions, and pitch and volume relay details about elevation, brightness and even color. 

Layering these sound qualities and playing several in sequence (each burst lasts about one second) thus gradually builds an image as simple as a basic shape or as complex as a landscape.

The concept has tried and true analogs in the animal world, says Dr. Amir Amedi, the lead researcher on the study. “The idea is to replace information from a missing sense by using input from a different sense. It’s just like bats and dolphins use sounds and echolocation to ‘see’ using their ears.”

For the rest of the story: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2014/04/28/blind-sight-the-next-generation-of-sensory-substitution-technology/

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