Blind British soldier 'sees' with his tongue

Mar 16, 2010
Lance Corporal Craig Lundberg. The soldier, left blind by a grenade in Iraq, has told how his life has been transformed by ground-breaking technology that enables him to "see" with his tongue.

A British soldier left blind by a grenade in Iraq has told how his life has been transformed by ground-breaking technology that enables him to "see" with his tongue.

Lance Corporal Craig Lundberg, 24, can read words, make out shapes and walk without assistance thanks to a device developed in the United States which could revolutionise life for other blind people.

Lundberg, from Liverpool in northwest England, completely lost his sight after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade while serving in Basra in 2007.

Faced with a life of relying on a guide dog, he was chosen by the Ministry of Defence as the first person in Britain to trial the BrainPort device, which could revolutionise treatment for the blind.

It converts images into which are sent to the tongue, where they cause a tingling sensation.

The different strength of the tingles can be interpreted so the user can mentally visualise their surroundings and navigate around objects.

The device consists of a tiny attached to a pair of sunglasses which are linked to a plastic "lollipop" which the user places on their tongue to read the pulses.

The image is created by presenting white pixels from the camera as strong stimulation, black pixels as no stimulation, and grey levels as medium levels of stimulation, although interpreting the images takes intensive training.

"It feels like licking a nine volt battery or like popping candy," Lundberg explained Monday.

"The camera sends signals down onto the lollipop and onto your tongue. You can then determine what they mean and transfer it to shapes.

"You get lines and shapes of things. It sees in black and white so you get a two-dimensional image on your -- it's a bit like a pins and needles sensation.

"It's only a prototype, but the potential to change my life is massive. It's got a lot of potential to advance things for blind people."

Thanks to the device, he can now "pick up objects straight away. I can reach out and pick them up when before I would be fumbling around to feel for them."

Lundberg and British military surgeons have visited the US for training in how to use the device, which is being developed by a team led by Gale Pollock, a former major general in the US army.

It is hoped that with further refinement, the BrainPort could be used for other blind British military personnel.

However, the future of Lundberg's trusty guide dog seems secure for now.

"There is no way I'm getting rid of my guide dog Hugo, though -- I love him.

"This (the BrainPort) is another mobility device, it's not the be-all and end-all of my disability."

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User comments : 9

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CreepyD
not rated yet Mar 16, 2010
It's a fantastic device.
I expect with heavy use and practise, this could be quite accurate.
I've seen people using echo location too with extremely good accuracy, it just takes practise to interpret the signal.
visual
5 / 5 (1) Mar 16, 2010
I wonder if he could also try the device for auditory display ( http://www.seeing...und.com/ ) and say which one works better.
(edit: CreepyD, this shouldn't be called "echo location", it doesn't use sound for capturing images, it uses normal light-based video camera and the sound part is only to interface with the person)

There's also been some research in actual bionic eyes interfacing directly with the brain to let people like this see again. I think this has great potential in the future, but our current progress allows only a very limited resolution (though I doubt his tongue device has a big resolution either), requires expensive implants, invasive surgery and could only be allowed as a temporary clinical trial and then removed again, so I guess there is no hope of him comparing that variant to the others.
danman5000
not rated yet Mar 16, 2010
It's amazing that you can retrain the brain so heavily to allow it to interpret pinprick sensations on the tongue as visual data. Seems like an unfortunate place to put it though - who wants to suck on something for an entire day? Also I assume he has to go blind again to eat or speak, which is inconvienent to say the least. I imagine this was the most effective non-invasive method, though.
joefarah
1 / 5 (1) Mar 16, 2010
The next step is to put this into a finger sensitive sensor. Just like those machines that allow you to read text through your fingers by scanning over them. I don't remember if they convert to brail or if they just amplify the text. One fellow who used to work for me (and this was 30 years ago), was a computer programmer and used this to read programs written by others (and by himself). He was in the top quartile of the programmers as well.
CSharpner
not rated yet Mar 16, 2010
danman5000: Yes. It's truly amazing. The human brain (or pretty much any biological brain) is generally just a great big, highly adaptive, pattern matching, logic device. There are lots of examples of researchers physically plugging in robotic limbs directly into monkey brains and they adapt quite well and quickly... so much so that their robotic limbs are sensed as part of their own body... and this seems to work regardless of where they plug it into the brain.

Plug something into a brain and provide any kind of sensual feedback and it quite literally becomes part of the body.
jj2009
not rated yet Mar 16, 2010
does this mean that when he is eating food it is interpreted as sight?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Mar 16, 2010
Seems like an unfortunate place to put it though

The point is that the tongue has more pressure sensitive nerves than any other part of the body per square centimeter. So the 'resolution' you get is best there. Other systems have used a vibrating array of points over the blind persons stomach for similar results

does this mean that when he is eating food it is interpreted as sight?

Not the taste, but the tactile information might well create a feeling of synaesthesia. Although he describes it as 'like a battery on the tongue' and not many foods produce that sensation - so it's also possible that the two impressions remain distinct.
dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (1) Mar 16, 2010
This is not the kind of fame one wants as a soldier.
Still, he may well live long enough to benefit from either regrown eyes or decent cybernetic implants.
seeingwithsound
not rated yet Mar 18, 2010
I wonder if he could also try the device for auditory display ( http://www.seeing...und.com/ ) and say which one works better.


I would certainly support independent benchmarking, and feedback from blind users who have tried both approaches. In the end, different users will have different needs and preferences, but at least they should be informed about their options.