The New Scientist has reported on a new device called Tongueduino that gives its users the ability to sense and perceive their environment using their tongues. The name comes from the use of a Arduino microcontroller board, an open source development environment that has enabled the rapid deployment of a host of sophisticated new products. The device works by mapping different kinds of inputs, including magnetometers and whiskers that sense deflection and air motion, onto an electrotactile stimulator placed on the tongue. The video below shows the prototype device with a 3×3 electrode array, although the latest version now uses a larger 5×5 array.
The magnetometer provides an internal sense of direction to the user, not entirely unlike the magnetic sense used by a migratory bird. The developers stop short of claiming the device gives you the ability to, in effect, taste magnetic fields — although other experiments have in fact revealed taste-like perceptions superimposed upon the spatial character of a stimulator array. When the piezoelectric whisker sensor input was enabled, the lightest touch could be sensed. Potentially, whiskers could also sense orientation and motion since they would be deflected by inertia and air currents. The direction and intensity of a particular input variable was encoded respectively by the electrode position and magnitude of the stimulation current. The users of the device were able to adapt quickly to the their new sense.
The power of using the tongue as a receiver is that as a mobile device itself, it can be used to provide an instant feedback signal to the input device. The feedback can be used to control parameters like the type of input, its sensitivity, and amplification, according to the situation. The tongue is also wired up to the brain at extremely high resolution as compared to other areas of the body that have been previously used for visual or other sensory substitution devices. As a central, unpaired and mobile sense organ, together with its unique and extensive representation in the brain, the tongue is perhaps the most powerful traducer of environmental information available to us.
The Tongueduino project represents a radical departure from the closed world of big name medical devices. This is a device that can be made by almost anyone, and used by everyone, to augment sensation or even replace one that is missing. Reprogramming an Arduino-powered device is as simple as establishing a USB connection and downloading a new program.
In the past week we have heard of rats sensing infrared light through touch perception, and even prosthetic hands that interphase directly to nerves. How these new technologies enable new experiences at the level of conscious perception is virgin territory. Universally accessible devices with rapid development cycles, like the Tongueduino, will be an invaluable tool for exploring the implications of these kinds of new technologies.
New Scientist: Tongue-tingling interface lets you taste data