Hebrew University students presented at the 2011 Presidential Conference sensory substitution technology that can allow the blind to "see."
“The idea is that it’s possible to send visual information in the form of touch and sound for people who are born blind,” explained Dr. Daniel Robert Chebat. “We’re studying how the brain reacts to this information.”
According to Dr. Chebat, when the visual parts of the brain learn how to use a sensory substitution device they become activated.
“We’ve been doing research on detecting obstacles, navigating around objects, trying to find your way out of a room,” he said. “This kind of device can help blind people to detect the opening of a doorway, if there’s a car passing by, [or] to cross the street.”
Shachar Maidenbaum of Hebrew U explained how to use sound to send visual information: The picture is divided into little squares, like pixels, and the blind person hears at any given moment an entire column of pixels: The brighter the pixel, the higher the volume and the darker the pixel, the lower the volume.
“We can basically hear any shape,” he said. “The blind people don’t know some of these shapes. One of our blind subjects looked at the sky and for the first time in his life saw a rainbow, but he had no idea what it was. All he knew was that the voice was sounding out something half circular in the sky.”
Dr. Chebat explained that the blind subject is “basically learning a new language and a new sense, because all of a sudden auditory information is taking on visual properties. They’re able to describe shapes with this information, they’re able to describe the distance to an object – things that normally you’re not able to do with sound.”
The technology, in fact, helps the brain “rewire itself” and use the other senses more efficiently.
“That’s what we’re trying to tap into in the lab,” said Dr. Chebat. “To build devices that can help improve the quality of life of blind people around the world.”