BY: M. TOMOSKI
It is one of the most frequently asked childhood questions: “why is the sky blue?” And it sends parents everywhere into a mad scramble to remember their sixth grade science class before finally settling on a Google search.
David Eagleman and his team have developed cheap and effective equipment capable of giving hearing to the deaf.
As David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, might point out, it has everything to do with light and how our eyes perceive it. But as he told Big Think, “CNN is passing through your body right now and you don’t even know it.” Indeed, if we had the biological equipment to detect electromagnetic waves, little Timmy could very well be asking why Donald Trump is screaming into his ear.
So the answer to that childhood curiosity is , “the sky isn’t really blue at all Timmy”, there is just very little of the world we can actually sense.
But Eagleman, together with PhD student Scott Novich and their team, is trying to change this. They have developed a cheap and effective way to help the deaf recapture their senses and are trying to unlock the massive computing power of our brains in the process.
VEST is an unconventional wearable hearing aid which allows sound to be felt by electrical signals sent to the brain.
The Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer, or the VEST, is a hearing aid which allows its wearer to “hear” in an unconventional way. Through a method called sensory substitution the VEST uses a cellphone app as a microphone allowing sound waves to be felt by the wearer through a series of motors that vibrate sending electrical signals to the brain.
VEST allows the wearer to hear a direct translation of sound with the same effort as regular hearing.
The beauty of the VEST is that the brain learns how to decode the information on its own. The vibrations of the motors are not based on any language that would require the wearer to learn the patterns like braille. Instead, they are a direct translation of the sound waves. As a result, “hearing” through the VEST would take no more effort than regular hearing.
The technology takes advantage of a principle in neuroscience known as neuro-plasticity in which the brain is seen as an adaptable organ able to decode any information so long as there is a method of input.
After five days of wearing the VEST a 37-year-old deaf man was able to determine the exact words that were being said to him, writing them down without having to see or read the lips of the person speaking.
For the time being the VEST is limited to simple speech, but there is potential for further testing to allow the wearer to recognize music.
Dr. Eagleman and his team are not the first to discover sensory substitution. The technique has been around since the 1950s and was put into practice by Paul Bach-y-Rita who created tangible representations of video images to aid the blind. He also created a tongue receptor akin to a retainer that translates the wearers’ surroundings into electrical signals which are sent to the brain and interpreted as images. In essence allowing the blind to “taste” the images in the same way that bats hear their environment.
Eagleman’s wearable solution operates in the same way and although it doesn’t completely restore hearing it is far simpler and more affordable than its alternatives. VEST is expected to be available later this year at less than $1,000. This is in contrast to the $5,000 that a hearing aid might cost or the $100,000 of a cochlear implant.
Dr. Eagleman sees sensory substitution as a window to unlocking the potential of the human mind. Beyond helping to restore the senses of those with disabilities, he and his team hope to develop new senses with the help of technology.
Eagleman and his team believe that our brains have the potential to sense anything outside of the visible spectrum.
He and his team believe that our brains have the potential to sense anything and everything in the spectrum. The problem for Eagleman is not the brain, but our lack of biological tools to transmit the electrical signals which would allow us to perceive the hidden parts of our world.
“Snakes see in the infrared range and honey bees see in ultra violet…there’s no reason why we can’t start building devices to see that and feed it directly into our brains.”
Using devices like his VEST, we may even be able to pick up on information that is already flowing through us. Given the proper receptors we can absorb information such as the news and weather without having to turn on the TV or read an article.
Currently, the team is conducting tests in which stock market information is transmitted to the VEST with the intention of having the wearer subconsciously tap into the market and potentially predict the best possible investments.
Besides creating a race of superhuman day traders, Eagleman sees the potential for this technology to allow pilots and astronauts to tap into aircraft and the International Space Station to feel when something has gone wrong, or even allow us to see in all directions simultaneously. All we need to do is plug in the right device.