Blind man 'sees' with tongue

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A British soldier left blind by a grenade in Iraq has told how his life has been transformed by ground-breaking technology that enables him to "see" with his tongue.

Lance Corporal Craig Lundberg, 24, can read words, make out shapes and walk without assistance thanks to a device developed in the US which could revolutionise life for other blind people.

Lundberg, from Liverpool in northwest England, completely lost his sight after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade while serving in Basra in 2007.

Faced with a life of relying on a guide dog, he was chosen by the Ministry of Defence as the first person in Britain to trial the BrainPort device, which could revolutionise treatment for the blind.

It converts images into electrical pulses which are sent to the tongue, where they cause a tingling sensation.

Popping candy

The different strength of the tingles can be interpreted so the user can mentally visualise their surroundings and navigate around objects.

The device consists of a tiny video camera attached to a pair of sunglasses which are linked to a plastic "lollipop" which the user places on their tongue to read the pulses.

The image is created by presenting white pixels from the camera as strong stimulation, black pixels as no stimulation, and grey levels as medium levels of stimulation, although interpreting the images takes intensive training.

"It feels like licking a nine volt battery or like popping candy," Lundberg explained on Monday.

"The camera sends signals down onto the lollipop and onto your tongue. You can then determine what they mean and transfer it to shapes.

"You get lines and shapes of things. It sees in black and white so you get a two-dimensional image on your tongue - it's a bit like a pins and needles sensation.

"It's only a prototype, but the potential to change my life is massive. It's got a lot of potential to advance things for blind people."

Mobility device

Thanks to the device, he can now "pick up objects straight away. I can reach out and pick them up when before I would be fumbling around to feel for them."

Lundberg and British military surgeons have visited the US for training in how to use the device, which is being developed by a team led by Gale Pollock, a former major general in the US army.

It is hoped that with further refinement, the BrainPort could be used for other blind British military personnel.

However, the future of Lundberg's trusty guide dog seems secure for now.

"There is no way I'm getting rid of my guide dog Hugo, though - I love him.

"This (the BrainPort) is another mobility device, it's not the be-all and end-all of my disability." - (AFP/March 2010)

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