Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hacking your senses

A nice article in Wired Magazine on how people are hacking their own senses; had shared this on Facebook, but I just spent 30 minutes searching for it. Clearly, should have been on my blog.
During a long brainstorm session, they wondered whether the tongue could actually augment sight for the visually impaired. I tried the prototype; in a white-walled office strewn with spare electronics parts, Wicab neuroscientist Aimee Arnoldussen hung a plastic box the size of a brick around my neck and gave me the mouthpiece. "Some people hold it still, and some keep it moving like a lollipop," she said. "It's up to you."
Arnoldussen handed me a pair of blacked-out glasses with a tiny camera attached to the bridge. The camera was cabled to a laptop that would relay images to the mouthpiece. The look was pretty geeky, but the folks at the lab were used to it.
She turned it on. Nothing happened.
"Those buttons on the box?" she said. "They're like the volume controls for the image. You want to turn it up as high as you're comfortable."
I cranked up the voltage of the electric shocks to my tongue. It didn't feel bad, actually — like licking the leads on a really weak 9-volt battery. Arnoldussen handed me a long white foam cylinder and spun my chair toward a large black rectangle painted on the wall. "Move the foam against the black to see how it feels," she said.
I could see it. Feel it. Whatever — I could tell where the foam was. With Arnold ussen behind me carrying the laptop, I walked around the Wicab offices. I managed to avoid most walls and desks, scanning my head from side to side slowly to give myself a wider field of view, like radar. Thinking back on it, I don't remember the feeling of the electrodes on my tongue at all during my walkabout. What I remember are pictures: high-contrast images of cubicle walls and office doors, as though I'd seen them with my eyes. Tyler's group hasn't done the brain imaging studies to figure out why this is so — they don't know whether my visual cortex was processing the information from my tongue or whether some other region was doing the work.

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