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The FDA has approved a device that allows blind people to "see" with their tongue

by , 23 June 2015

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that medical device company Wicab has their stamp of approval to market a new device that can help blind people “see”.

The device, called the BrainPort V100, can help blind people navigate by processing visual information and communicating it to their user through electrodes on their tongue.

This isn't the first device to go on the market using sensory substitution (where information perceived by one sense is communicated through another), but the sophistication and usability of this new device could cause a rise in the number of sensory substitution devices permitted by the FDA.

Read on to find out more.

What the BrainPort V100 looks like and how it works

The device consists of a pair of dark glasses and tongue-stimulating electrodes connected to a handheld battery-operated device. When cameras in the glasses pick up a visual stimuli, software converts the information to electrical pulses sent as vibrations the user feels on his or her tongue.
Like most sensory substitution devices, seeing with your tongue might not be an intuitive at first. But the developers of the device tested it over the course of a year, training users to interpret the vibrations. Studies showed that 69% of the test subjects were able to identify an object using the BrainPort V100 device after a year of training.
The biggest downside to this new device is its price – it’s expensive. Wicab told Popular Science that it’ll cost $10,000 per unit (over R100,000).

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The BrainPort V100 could pave way for a great rise in sensory substitution devices

Researchers have been fiddling with sensory substitution for a long time, but most of these devices are not yet widely available. The BrainPort V100 will be on one of the first, having passed the FDA’s review through recently-updated guidelines called the premarket review pathway: “a regulatory pathway for some low- to moderate-risk medical devices that are not substantially equivalent to an already legally-marketed device,” according to the press release. 
Since Wicab can now market the approved device, the BrainPort may be paving the way for an explosion of sensory substitution devices to hit the market in the next few years, which could help the growing numbers of Americans with sensory impairments.

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