In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Enterprise’s Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge was blind but was able to see with the aid of a VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement). Now a team led by Dr. Amir Amedi at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has developed a similar device called the Sensory Substitution Device that ‘hacks’ into the visual cortex of blind people and allows them to identify objects.
The Sensory Substitution Device uses a camera to gather visual data and then translates it into sound using a complex algorithm. This sound is then passed on to the user so that they can use the assorted noises to identify complex objects and even read sentences.
The invention is said to be relatively easy to use – many people are capable of identifying objects after a “brief period of training”. It is hoped that after an extended time, users will be able to learn how to interpret a large stream of information from the algorithm’s soundscape.
Perhaps the most intriguing part is that the sounds activate the otherwise dormant visual cortices of congenitally blind people. According to people who are much smarter than I am, our visual cortex organizes data into two parallel pathways – the ventral occipito-temporal pathway (which deals with form, identity, and color) and the dorsal occipito-parietal pathway (which focuses on object location and coordinates visual data with motor function).
MRI scans showed that blind people using the sensory device saw these previously dormat pathways acting as they would if they had had normal vision. For the blind population of the world, this next generation technology could soon see massive benefits.
Lead image courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem