Michelle Thomas is learning to "see", not with her eyes but her
A computer reconstruction of one second of sound as seen by
the vOICe system
Now she can
also use a mobile camera phone to do it.
birth, Ms Thomas is able to recognize the walls and doors of her house,
discern whether the lights are on or off and even distinguish a CD from a
floppy disk after only a week using a revolutionary new system.
"seeing with sound".
Dr Peter Meijer, a senior scientist at Philips Research Laboratories in the
Netherlands, the system is called The vOICe (the three middle letters
standing for "Oh I See").
It works by
translating images from a camera on-the-fly into highly complex soundscapes,
which are then transmitted to the user over headphones.
setup consists of a head-mounted camera, stereo headphones and a notebook
In total it
costs about $2,500. The software is available as a free download.
A blind user wearing The vOICe goes in search of her lost
bargaining on the brain's adaptive capacity.
He hopes that
blind users will ultimately learn to mentally reconstruct the visual content
of the live camera views, as carried by the soundscapes, so that they
experience something akin to meaningful vision.
assumption here is that the brain is ultimately not interested in the
information 'carrier' (here sound) but only in the
'content'," says Meijer.
the signals in the optic nerve of a normally sighted person are also 'just'
neural spiking patterns. What you think you 'see' is what your brain makes
of all those firing patterns."
users to get an audio snapshot of what is visually in front of them, The
vOICe is taking a very different route from "bionic eyes" - retinal and
non-invasive, offering a higher image resolution (up to several thousand
pixels) and does not necessarily rely on the visual cortex.
The system's developer hopes ability will come with practice
has its own unique sound and once you learn the principles involved you can
know what you're seeing," says Thomas.
brighter areas sound louder, height is indicated by pitch and a built-in
colour identifier speaks out colour names when activated.
can't track fast cars or read small print efficiently, it does allow blind
users to trace out buildings, read a graph and even watch television.
in terms of difficulty to learning a foreign language, Meijer hopes that in
the long run, users will become more "fluent" in the mental translation so
that it becomes more like natural perception, without conscious effort.
of the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) in Paris, France, and
an expert in the area of sensory consciousness, is currently evaluating The
This headset connects to a mobile PC
that if perfected, the software could at least partially evoke vision-like
sensations in even the congenitally blind.
is that vision is a very high bandwidth system, and it's not clear whether
we can achieve sufficient bandwidth via other modalities," he stated.
To suit user
preferences, Blue Edge Bulgaria has developed a simplified but highly
portable mobile phone version of The vOICe for the Nokia 3650 camera phone.
available as a free download at The vOICe site.