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Computer Interfaces: Tech's Next Great Frontier

Next-gen interfaces offer a chance to see with the tongue, among other sensory experiences
Computer Interfaces: Tech's Next Great Frontier
Photograph illustration by 731; David: David Silverman/Getty Images; Google Glass: Reuters

Consider the tongue. It’s sensitive yet muscular, packed with taste buds and nerves, and without its acrobatic ability humans wouldn’t be able to eat or talk. It’s also our most versatile sense organ, and some computer engineers say it’s underused. Wicab, a Middleton (Wis.)-based company, has designed a small, square array of electrodes for the blind. When placed on the tongue like a lollipop, it turns the feed from a video camera into a pointillist pattern of tactile stimulation. The sensation is like sparkling water, or Pop Rocks candy, but after time and practice, blind users report the paradoxical sensation of seeing with their tongues.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Gershon Dublon is trying to broaden Wicab’s idea. He’s made a cheap ($10 to $40, he estimates), bare-bones version of the device that can be connected to any set of sensors. He encourages fellow engineers to hook their tongues up to other inputs—microphones, pressure sensors, even a magnetometer, which would give a person a migratory bird’s unerring sense of direction. The device, which Dublon calls the Tongueduino, wouldn’t be just for the blind, or the deaf, but for anyone looking to augment his senses. “It would be useful,” he says, “for anyone who wants a better sense of direction.”