Seeing By Your Tongue

A woman makes a silly face by sticking her tongue out and looking up.
A woman makes a silly face by sticking her tongue out and looking up.

Everyday brings new technological breakthroughs -- and one of the most fascinating is the development of sensors that enable the tongue to actually see. This ability is rudimentary now, like seeing a series of pointillist patterns, perhaps a little like the earliest video games. But consider the possibilities as the technology is further developed, so that it may start to approach the 3-D realism of video games of today. While the technology was developed with blind users in mind, all sorts of uses and users are possible.

Here's how it works, as Drake Bennett describes in "Beyond Your Fingertips". While the eyes and then the hearing are commonly considered our most important sense organs, the tongue is very sensitive as well as muscular, packed with both taste buds and nerves. But it not only enables us to eat and talk -- computer engineers feel it can do so much more, including enabling us to see, with a little help from technology.

Some of this early technology has come from Wicab, based in Middleton, Wisconsin, which has created a small, square containing electrodes, a little like a candy wafer, that can be placed on the tongue. Then, when this device receives feed from a video camera, it generates a "pointillist pattern of tactile stimulation," which initially produces a sensation like drinking sparkling water or eating Pop Rocks candy that pop and crackle in your mouth, like Rice Crispies. But after some time and practice, the initial group of blind users report they can see with their tongues.

Now another tech wiz -- Gershon Dublon, a grad student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has expanded the seeing-by-tongue technique by creating a simple device called the Tongueduino, costings about $10 to $40 each, that can be connected to any other sensors. Dublon method for developing this technology is having other engineers connect their tongues to other input sources, such as microphones, pressure sensors, and magnetometers, which enable anyone to expand their senses. As a result, once you're connected, through your tongue you could hear, feel pressure, or even get a sense of direction like the birds do.

Such research is no mere slip of the tongue, so to speak, since still other researchers have considered the tongue a powerful brain-machine interface. For example, using a technique called "sensory substitution" developed by the late Paul Bach-y-Rita, Navy divers have used sonar signals fed into their tongues to see in dark, murky waters, as described by Richard E. Cytowic, M.D. in
"See with Your Tongue!" in Psychology Today. Additionally, soldiers in battle have used infrared sensors on their helmets to beam data to their tongues so they can have 360-degree night vision. And blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer uses video input to his tongue to climb mountains. Even neurosurgeons have become more dexterous when they operate in tiny, hard-to-reach spaces by getting input from their tongue.

Bach-y-Rita, then a rehabilitation physician at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, developed this tongue sensing technique based on every brain having plasticity, so it can reorganize itself. As a result, if one part is damaged, another part can take over the same function. That's why the unused portions of the visual cortext in newly blind individuals can shift from seeing to feeling and eventually reading Braile, and even individuals blindfolded for only two days can experience input in the visual cortext when they touch something with their fingers or hear music or words. In fact, Bach-y-Rita's research dates on the interchangeable senses dates back a decade, as Michael Abrams and Dan Winters write in "Can You See with Your Tongue?" in Discovery Magazine

And the tongue is ideal for this research because it has more tactile nerve endings than any other part of the body besides the lips, and because the brain is the source of our seeing, according to Bach-y-Rita, so when the eyes don't see anything, the brain can receive visual stimulation from other sources of input, which include the ears, nose, and skin. But the tongues wins, well, by a nose!

I can't wait to see what other technologists of the tongue -- call them tongologists -- come up with. For example, a device enabling the tongue to see gives a whole new meaning to French kissing. Just think, with a little light shown strategically, you can see as well as experience enhanced sensations.

Or consider the gastronomic experience in a restaurant. You could see as well as taste what you eat. There could even be restaurant observatories featuring this new kind of experience for the tongue -- not to mention the possibility of postings on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Then, too, imagine any kind of classroom, art museum, theater, or party, where people not only look around but have their tongues out to see from a different angle. So 3-D might turn into 4, 5, or 6-D, and our brains could become like TV monitors, choosing among the images and angles we see. Also consider the possibilities for new forms of entertainment, such as going to an exploratorium where, as you crawl in the dark, you might use your tongue as well as your hands to experience even more. Or perhaps this tongue technology might open up a new way to meet and greet or have a unique cocktail party with a new way to say hello.

Plus the blind wouldn't be blind anymore. In fact, with a little ingenuity, maybe these devices could enable the tongue to hear sounds, too, so we could listen with our tongues for a truly 3-D sound experience. And someday, maybe even the sensitive fingertips could be wired to see as well as touch.

Well, you get the idea. You can truly SEE in new ways, as the whole body develops different ways of SEEING. So when someone invites you to taste something in the future, maybe you can see it, too.

Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her own company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients, and has written and produced over 50 short videos through her company Changemakers Productions Her latest books include: The Very Next New Thing: Commentaries on the Latest Developments that Will Be Changing Your Life and Living in Limbo: From the End to New Beginnings