Ben Squires

Eye Care

New technology allows blind to see with sound

New technology allows blind to see with sound

Something as simple as assessing whether to cross the road or when to take a boiling pot off the stove can be a challenging task for the vision impaired. But new research from the California Institute of Technology may have a solution the will give blind people the ability to sense their surrounds… through sound.

Researchers have discovered that intrinsic neural connections- also known as crossmodal mappings- can be used with a device to help blind people ‘see’ their environment with sound. The impacts could be dramatic, with blind people able to complete attention consuming tasks that once took minutes, in mere seconds.

The study involved the use of a vOICe device, which allows images to be translated into sounds. It’s made up of a small computer connected to a camera, attached to darkened glasses. Each camera image is scanned, and a computer algorithm translates the pixels into a unique sound. For example bright pixels, perhaps from looking at clouds, would have a loud, high-frequency pitch.

What’s more, participants in the study were able to use the device, even without being trained to identify the sound frequencies.

Shinsuke Shimojo, Gertrude Baltimore Professor of Experimental Psychology, says the findings open up a discussion of more philosophical questions, like ‘what is seeing?’

"It seems like such an obvious question, but it gets complicated," says Shimojo. "Is seeing what happens when you open your eyes? Our research has shown that the visual cortex can be activated by sound, indicating that we don't really need our eyes to see. It's very profound--we're trying to give blind people a visual experience through other senses."

Related links: 

Does ageing make one more dangerous behind the wheel?

These glasses make you look younger

Why you should consider wearing computer glasses

Our Partners