Seeing In Tongue

While gathering a story in the past week, I really couldn't believe my eyes. And it was for two reasons: One, it's about a fascinating technology. Two, it made me re-examine how we all perceive the world around us. Or at least we sighted people.

You see, the story is about an experimental technology/device that basically allows blind people to "see" certain images. We followed a gentleman named Roger Behm, who was a real character. He has a great sense of humor and he allowed us to watch him in his daily life. In spite of his blindness, he's independent and loves his power tools. Yes, we actually watched him use a band saw without incident. (He's extremely familiar with his home and its intricacies.) He has a wife and four kids, and they're looking to adopt a visually impaired child from China in the next few months. Quite the guy/group.

Roger is one of several volunteers working with a company called Wicab based in Madison, Wisconsin. They've developed a device called the BrainPort. In simple terms, a camera is mounted on a person's head and connected to a receiver worn around the neck. Attached to the receiver box is a sensor with tiny electrodes that stimulate the tongue, based on what the camera is "seeing." Roger explained it best when he said it's like a person writing letters with their finger on your back. The BrainPort sends signals to the brain, and a blind person can eventually learn to send those signals from the touch area of the brain to the visual cortex. The images are grainy and rather pixilated right now, but in the coming months and years they hope to refine it further. According to the researchers, it'll never fully recreate sight, but it could give blind people a major boost in freedom and mobility.I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try the BrainPort, and while I was no where near as adept as Roger, I could sort of "see" the various shapes held up in front of me. The nerd in me thought of Luke wielding The Force or Geordie LaForge in "Star Trek: Next Generation." But I wasn't nearly that graceful at first (unlike Roger who's a pro), and it took me a few tries to get even a basic understanding. It's a little like translating a new language. And it was tough letting people watch me fumble around with the BrainPort while being filmed, but then I reminded myself how lucky I was to be able to take off the blindfold.

Be sure to check out the CBS Evening News story I did about BrainPort to watch Roger navigate an obstacle course without any help. Plus, find out where they see the technology going in the not-too-distant future.

(Oh, and that "interesting" story I mentioned last time? It's still in the works and we hope to bring it to you soon on the CBS Evening News. I'll give you a hint: some people are Joost about it.)