Shape Discrimination Using the Tongue: Implications for a Visual-to-Tactile Sensory Substitution Device

Sensory substitution devices have the potential to provide individuals with visual impairments with more information about their environments, which may help them recognize objects and achieve more independence in their daily lives. However, many of these devices may require extensive training and might be limited in the amount of information that they can convey. We tested the effectiveness and assessed some of the limitations of the BrainPort device, which provides stimulation through a 20 × 20 electrode grid array on the tongue. Across five experiments, including one with blind individuals, we found that subjects were unable to accurately discriminate between simple shapes as well as different line orientations that were briefly presented on the tongue, even after 300 trials of practice with the device. These experiments indicate that such a minimal training regimen with the BrainPort is not sufficient for object recognition, raising serious concerns about the usability of this device without extensive training.