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walk down the sidewalk without his guide dog or a cane. “It was a liberating experience to walk somewhere outside without my hands outstretched in front of me, without a cane. It’s something I haven’t done since losing my sight. It was pretty awesome.”
In addition to navigation, BrainPort was useful for discerning where people were located in a room. There would be too much stimuli for it to be useful in a crowd of people, Malarsie says, but he could use it to chase his children around the house and “see” where they were going, for example. “It kind of helps with a sense of inclusion,” he says. “So, just to have a sense of where people are sitting, how many people are around—that’s extremely helpful.”
Although Wicab has made the device less bulky over time, Malarsie says it could be improved if it used a smaller camera that wasn’t so noticeable, and also was higher resolution; if it didn’t have any wires; and if it didn’t require the user to hold the lollipop device in the mouth and take it out with their hand to talk. He didn’t mind that strangers stared at him while wearing the contraption because it was useful to him, but he knows some blind people wouldn’t want to wear the device in its current form. “They already stand out; they don’t want to stand out more,” he says.
Beckman says Wicab is aware of these inconveniences and is working to tweak the design and continue improving the technology.
Wicab intends to eliminate the handheld device that controls the intensity of the electronic pulses and the camera zoom, instead placing those controls on the glasses. That would free up one of the user’s hands, which would be useful because a cane or a guide dog leash might occupy the other hand, Beckman says.
The company considered converting the lollipop device into a retainer that would sit on the roof of the mouth, and the person would lift the tongue and touch it to feel the electrical stimulation. But focus groups raised concerns about the possibility of misplacing the retainer, so the company intends to keep the lollipop device tethered to the glasses, Beckman says.
Beckman acknowledges that the current version of BrainPort looks “somewhat strange,” and he recognizes that blind people “are still very much aware of aesthetics.” But people’s reactions can change after they get used to seeing new gadgets. “The first time I saw somebody with a Bluetooth in their ear, I thought that was really odd,” Beckman says. “I believe that wearable technology, including glasses, are going to continue to be developed. As that happens, our technology will fit right in.”
A next frontier for Wicab is partnering with software developers to integrate mobile apps with BrainPort, which would open up new possibilities for more advanced and complementary features, Beckman says. “We need to couple the capability we have—which is to interpret simple information, or the big picture, I would call it—with the Internet, which has the ability already to decipher and interpret complex information.”
One of the early ideas is that a blind person could tell the mobile app she is seeking, say, a bus stop. The app could look online to find the next bus’s estimated time of arrival, while also helping steer the user to the bus stop. The app could have access to the BrainPort’s video feed and could communicate to the user—perhaps audibly, or through a signal on the tongue, or through bone conduction, a la Google Glass–that the bus stop is within view.
Beckman equates it to the technology that will enable driverless cars to stay within lanes and identify the signals of traffic lights.
“A lot has developed in computer vision, face recognition, contextual understanding of surroundings, the idea of tapping into cloud resources, that didn’t exist” several years ago, says Arnoldussen, who left Wicab in 2012 but still consults for the company. Once BrainPort can integrate those types of technologies, she adds, “I think the impact will be quite strong.”
Simplifying the logistics of operating the device and combining it with mobile apps are the key to making BrainPort a more practical technology right “out of the box,” Beckman says. “I think the device, as it is, is useful and will meet with some success. But I think where we’re headed is in a direction that will greatly expand the number of people that want to purchase the technology.”