Sensory substitution is a concept first theorized in the 1950’s by researchers looking to explore ways a person can experience one of the five senses through a different sensory pathway. For example, research at the University of Pittsburgh has been focusing on the use of a device called the BrainPort over the past few years, which relies on sensory substitution concepts to help people who have lost their vision to regain a sense of environmental awareness through the use of the tongue.
The BrainPort is a combination of a small camera connected to a pair of sunglasses, which then transmits the visual field into a small, handheld computer that translates the image into an electrical impulse which is then felt on the tongue with a small “sensory array.” The sensation is often compared to the tingling of champagne bubbles or pop-rocks. From this “tingling” feeling, users of the device, with practice, are able to discern large objects in their path, low hanging objects overhead, as well as walls, doorframes, and other easy to contrast objects. Some practiced users have even been able to read large letters and tell shapes apart on signs.
Imaging studies conducted on BrainPort users has found that even though the participants’ are visually impaired or altogether blind, when they use the device, the visual cortex of their brain lights up, indicating that the brain perceives the tongue sensations as visual cues.
Current research involves making the BrainPort display higher resolution images on the tongue, while also adapting the computer technology into a cellphone application for easier mobility. Studies are continuously ongoing at the University of Pittsburgh.