What does a triangle sound like? What noise do you think the color purple makes? Israeli scientists have made the seemingly impossible possible by helping the blind ‘hear’ colors and shapes normally perceived visually.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers have shown that through the use of sensory substitution devices, the blind and visually impaired can receive environmental visual information and interact with objects in ways otherwise unimaginable. SSDs are non-invasive sensory aids that provide visual information to the blind via their existing senses.
For example, using a visual-to-auditory SSD in a clinical or everyday setting, users wear a miniature camera connected to a small computer (or smart phone) and stereo headphones. The images are converted into ‘soundscapes,’ using a predictable algorithm, allowing the user to listen to and then interpret the visual information coming from the camera.
The EyeMusic non-invasive SSD (available free at the Apple App store at http://tinyurl.com/oe8d4p4), developed by a team of researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lets one hear pleasant musical notes to convey information about colors, shapes and the location of objects in the world.
Prof. Amir Amedi and his team at the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences and the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Medicine have shown that contrary to the long-held conception of the cortex being divided into separate vision-processing and auditory areas, new findings over the past decade demonstrate that many brain areas are characterized by their computational task, and can be activated using senses other than the one commonly used for this task, even for people who were never exposed to “original” sensory information at all (such as a person born blind).
“The human brain is more flexible than we thought,” says Amedi, whose work is patented by Yissum, the Hebrew University’s Technology Transfer Company. “These results give a lot of hope for the successful regaining of visual functions using cheap non-invasive SSDs or other invasive sight restoration approaches. They suggest that in the blind, brain areas have the potential to be ‘awakened’ to processing visual properties and tasks even after years or maybe even lifelong blindness, if the proper technologies and training approaches are used.”
In recent articles in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience and Scientific Reports, blind and blindfolded-sighted users of EyeMusic were shown to correctly perceive and interact with objects, such as recognizing different shapes and colors or reaching for a beverage.