Physically Seeing Braille

Yet another scientific development that I can link to Star Trek: we’re one step closer to Lt. Commander La Forge’s VISOR. Scientists at Second Sight have developed a device that will allow the visually impaired to stream braille directly onto their retinas.

Second Sight already has a device called Argus II, which they call a Retinal Prosthesis System Artificial Retina and is already in use by over 50 patients. The idea is to help those with Rentinitis Pigmentosa (a degenerative eye disorder) be able to see some colour, objects and movement. It does this by recording information with a camera mounted on a pair of glasses, which is then processed by a unit held on the body and sent into an implant in the eye. The implant has an array of electrodes that, when sent the information from the unit, sends electrical pulses into the retina. This stimulates the retina’s remaining cells, which sends the signal through the optic nerve to the brain.

The system even allows the visually impaired to read, but the system is far from perfect and makes reading in the real world woefully slow.

In an effort to speed up the reading aspect, the researchers have decided to use Braille – a common language for the visually impaired, and one that would be easy for the array electrodes to process. See, the array on the implant is a grid of 10×6 electrodes: by selecting six of these, they can simulate the 3×4 Braille array, allowing the user to actually see the Braille.

The results increased the reading speed by more than 20-fold. It showed 89% accuracy in identifying single letters, 80% in 2-letter words, 60% in 3-letter words and 70% in 4-letter words. That’s pretty incredible.

They haven’t yet gotten FDA approval in the United States, though the device is already CE approved and available in Europe. The full research article is available here.

Sure, it’s still a far cry from the spectral feast that Geordi La Forge would have been privy to with his VISOR, but it’s quite a breakthrough in visual impairment technology. I can’t wait to see the future of these sorts of devices!

[Second Sight via io9]