Thursday, April 27, 2006

Do not be afraid of Tongue-Tongue, he is only tasting you

Does anyone remember the classic "Tick" episode called "The Tick vs. Science"? The Tick goes to a Mad Scientist Fair (Professor Chromedome: "What good is science if no one gets hurt?") and sees the important advancements coming out of the mad science world. There is, for instance, the Can-O-Man, an aerosol-spray golem who can bench-press 240 pounds, lifts heavy things on command, gives a great shoulder massage, and disappears after one hour in a fragrant cloud of potpourri. (I still believe these should exist, even though my boyfriend practically is one.) There's also Dr. Mung Mung's creation Tongue-Tongue, a creature made entirely of tongue; he has limbs (and, weirdly, a tongue) but no eyes or ears. One sense is enough for Tongue-Tongue.

Well, that was just about the first thing I thought of when I read this article, provided by Lynne. It appears that military researchers are hard at work on Tongue-Tongue technology for Navy SEALs. Specifically, they're working on a device that will route sonar signals to electrodes on the tongue and thence to the brain, allowing night vision, panoramic vision, and other "superhuman senses."
The device, known as "Brain Port," was pioneered more than 30 years ago by Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a University of Wisconsin neuroscientist. Bach-y-Rita began routing images from a camera through electrodes taped to people's backs and later discovered the tongue was a superior transmitter.

A narrow strip of red plastic connects the Brain Port to the tongue where 144 microelectrodes transmit information through nerve fibers to the brain. Instead of holding and looking at compasses and bluky-hand-held [sic] sonar devices, the divers can processes the information through their tongues, said Dr. Anil Raj, the project's lead scientist.

In testing, blind people found doorways, noticed people walking in front of them and caught balls. A version of the device, expected to be commercially marketed soon, has restored balance to those whose vestibular systems in the inner ear were destroyed by antibiotics.
I just don't know what to say about this (besides "release the nice moth man, Tongue-Tongue; here is an individually wrapped slice of processed cheese"). The article isn't very well-written -- see "bluky-hand-held sonar devices," above -- so it's tough to figure out exactly how this technology will work. But if you think about the classic sensory homunculus, the tongue and lips certainly occupy a big swath of neural real estate. If the intention is to get signals directly to the brain, the tongue is a pretty direct conduit.

But what is it like? The article doesn't say much about the phenomenology of tongue-munication. One Navy diver says it's like "feeling the outline of [an] image," which mostly implies to me that it's a very difficult experience to describe. I wonder whether it's similar to synesthesia, in that you're perceiving something you're not actually seeing (and perceiving it, furthermore, via a near-direct stimulation to the sensorimotor cortex). Is it experienced as an image? As some kind of tongue-image? As "just knowing" that something's there? Is the SEAL "feeling the outline" of the image on his tongue, or is it more like the experience of actually touching the object? Man, now I want to try it. Not enough to join the Navy, mind you, but I'd love to know what it means to see through your tongue. Or at the very least, what it's like to hold and look at a bluky-hand-held sonar device.

(I want a DVD of "The Tick" now, too, but there isn't one. What gives with that?)


Anna said...

Also don't forget that The Tick wrestled with Dinosaur Neil's tongue once.

They rerun The Tick on the...Cartoon Network maybe? Something that's in the hundreds on my cable box, anyway. At 7:30 Pacific time on weeknights.

4/29/2006 7:53 PM  
Laura said...

OMG and Dinosaur Neil swallowed Indigestible Man, my favorite villain concept ever.

5/02/2006 10:55 AM  
Calladus said...

You may want to look up Dr. Steve Mann MIT graduate and one of the founders of the MIT Wearable Computing Lab.

In the 1999 article, Cyborg Seeks Community, Dr. Mann speaks of a 'vibravest':

I also invented the “vibravest”—a garment studded with radar transceivers and vibrating elements. Wearing this vest made objects at a distance feel as if they were pressing against my body. I could close my eyes and walk down the hallway, confident that any wall or other obstacle would be felt as warning vibrations on the appropriate side of the vest.

5/04/2006 3:45 PM  

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