Breakthrough device to debut at National Eye Institute’s 40th anniversary kickoff event

March 25, 2009

by Janet Kelly

A portable vision device that provides blind individuals sensory input similar to vision will be presented at the 40th anniversary celebration for the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, on Friday, April 3.

The Brainport vision device, based on technology invented at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is being developed by Wicab Inc., based in Middleton, Wis. The company's CEO, Robert Beckman, and Erik Weihenmayer, widely recognized motivational speaker, writer and athlete who has been blind since his teens, will keynote the conference.

The Brainport vision device, featured in a recent article in the NIH Record, has the potential to dramatically enhance the quality of life for people affected by blindness throughout the world. The technology, developed with NEI research funding and licensed exclusively to Wicab by the UW-Madison's private nonprofit technology transfer organization, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), is based upon a principle known as "sensory substitution."

The late Paul Bach-y-Rita, the UW-Madison neuroscientist who invented Brainport, famously declared "we see with our brains, not with our eyes." He proposed that visual perception in the brain could be restored using an alternate sensor and input channel, such as a digital camera providing visual signals through the tongue.

"The National Eye Institute is dedicated to conducting and supporting research related to preserving sight and addressing the needs of people who are blind or have low vision," says Michael D. Oberdorfer, program director in the NEI extramural research program. "Sensory substitution devices like the BrainPort vision device can potentially enhance the everyday activities of those who are blind or have low-vision."

The BrainPort vision device assists those who are blind with orientation, mobility, object identification and spot reading. Visual information is collected by a miniature video camera mounted on a pair of sunglasses and translated into gentle electrical stimulation patterns on the surface of the tongue. Users describe it as pictures drawn on their tongue with champagne bubbles. With training, individuals perceive shape, size, location and motion of objects in their environment. The company plans to submit a 510(k) application for this device to the FDA in the near future and refine the technology for public use and sale.

At the event, Erik Weihenmayer will introduce his award-winning documentary "BLINDSIGHT," which chronicles his mountain-climbing journey with six blind Tibetan teenagers to 21,500 feet on Mount Everest. He also will share his experience using the BrainPort vision device. With earlier prototypes, Weihenmayer has been able to avoid obstacles while walking, catch moving balls, identify and reach for objects, and play tic-tac-toe and rock-paper-scissors with his daughter. In addition, he used the device to find out-of-reach holds on a rock climbing wall. "Scanning the rock wall with the BrainPort vision device enhances my current system of searching for holds by using my hands and feet. BrainPort definitely adds another helpful sensory input," he says. Next, he wants to try the device while downhill skiing.

While Weihenmayer enjoys pushing the limits with the BrainPort vision device, he also recognizes the revolutionary implications that a commercially available BrainPort system could have on daily living for the blind, "giving children and adults a better chance of being in the thick of things instead of listening to life go by."