It’s not exactly bringing sight to the blind, but Wicab Inc.‘s technology has a similar effect.
The company’s BrainPort device works by translating images from a digital camera mounted on a user’s sunglasses to electric pulses on a device that’s worn on the tongue, allowing a blind person to learn how to interpret those pulses to identify different visual shapes. (More on that later.)
“Information is the same whether it comes from the eyes or the skin,” said Aimee Arnoldussen, a neuroscientist with four-employee Wicab. “The key is in the interpretation.”
Founded in 1998 by now-deceased neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, Wicab is facing what looks to be a critical juncture. The company has largely been funded by government grants, but with its recent application for federal regulatory approval of its BrainPort vision device, Wicab may finally be ready to sink or swim on its own. Assuming the Food and Drug Administration approves it, the vision device could be on the market by the end of the year.
To commercialize the BrainPort, Wicab is looking to form a partnership with a bigger company or land some venture funding. Arnoldussen said Wicab is in the midst of those discussions. The company has conducted several studies, with about 100 patients having logged eight hours or more with the device — the time period needed to grasp the basics, Arnoldussen said.
“Through grants we’ve taken the technology to a strong position,” Arnoldussen said. “We’ve demonstrated its usability and capability to improve people’s quality of life. Now the challenge is to find the best way to commercialize it.”
Since 2004, Wicab has pulled in about $5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, with the majority of that coming from the National Eye Institute. The NEI gets about 80,000 grant applications each year and funds less than 20 percent of them, said Michael Steinmetz, a scientific review officer with the NEI.
“The unique and innovative aspect of this is the use of the tongue as an input,” Steinmetz said. “I don’t know any other companies doing that.”
Steinmetz said he doesn’t view the BrainPort as something that a blind person would wear all day because the so-called “lollipop” piece sits in a user’s mouth and prevents eating or speaking. The device is best employed at certain times when a user needs to visually interact with his surroundings. For example, one user told Steinmetz the device helps him play tic-tac-toe or roll a ball across the floor with his young daughter.
“This isn’t a replacement for tapping with a cane, for example, but it might have a particular role in assisting with mobility and recognizing the environment around you,” he said.
Wicab conservatively estimates the market for the BrainPort vision device at about $25 million per year, but that number could grow much larger as new markets for “low-vision” technology emerge, Arnoldussen said.
The BrainPort’s lollipop contains about 400 electrodes that each correspond to a set of pixels in the camera, with white pixels yielding strong electrical signals that feel like champagne bubbles and black pixels giving no signal. Users then learn to detect patterns based on the pulses they feel and eventually recognize shapes, in a sense “seeing” their surroundings.
In addition to its use as a vision device, the BrainPort can also be used to correct the balance of people suffering from vestibular disorders, which result from damage to the parts of the inner ear and brain involved with controlling balance and eye movement. Instead of a digital camera, the balance device has an accelerometer, which provides a reading of the body’s angle relative to the floor. The balance device has been approved for sale in Canada and Europe.
But it’s the BrainPort’s ability to help the visually impaired that’s drawing attention to Wicab and earning accolades from those who’ve tried the device. A British soldier, blinded by a grenade in Iraq, said the device’s potential to change his life is “massive.”