Seeing with the Tongue, Part II
Echo location is certainly the best-known, most-used technique for finding out what’s around us as blind people. Sounds of our footsteps or, as I mentioned earlier, clicks of our tongues bounce off telephone poles, trees, etc., giving us environmental clues. Of course, our canes bump signposts or hedges; our guide dogs pull harder to show the possibility of a cat or dog ahead or wag tails to indicate a familiar or at least friendly person approaching.
But fairly new research called the Grainport is giving important info, too. The Brainport V 100 uses glasses with a camera and a kind of tongue depressor held in the mouth. The camera picks up images and translates them into vibrations felt on the tongue. People who have been trained on the Brainport report that it offers pictures on the tongue.
Several years ago I tried this device for a mere ten minutes, not nearly enough time to get more than a tiny sense of the technology. The researchers placed a Styrofoam cup on the table in front of me. The tongue gismo vibrated a straight thin line on my tongue, not the shape of the cup.
I heard an interview with a woman who had been trained on the thing for a year and a half. She now walks down New York City sidewalks, wears it and gets sensations of the pedestrians passing her. She seems to be able to translate these vibrations into pictures and determine tall or short people from other objects she passes. Like the blind man, Daniel, who uses clicking so effectively to negotiate his world, this woman finds that her brain is translating these vibrations into images. Hearing this interview, I suddenly realized that the thin vibrating line that I felt on my tongue years ago, I remember as a thin, silver dotted straight line. That experience comes to mind in visual form, which just knocks my socks off.