Blind soldier 'sees' with tongue device

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The Independent Online

A soldier blinded by a grenade in Iraq today described how his life has been transformed by ground-breaking technology that enables him to "see" with his tongue.

Lance Corporal Craig Lundberg, 24, from Walton, Liverpool, can read words, identify shapes and walk unaided thanks to the BrainPort device, despite being totally blind.



The Liverpool fan, who plays blind football for England, lost his sight after being struck by a rocket propelled grenade while serving in Basra in 2007.



He was faced with the prospect of relying on a guide dog or cane for the rest of his life.



But he was chosen by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to be the first person to trial a pioneering device - the BrainPort, which could revolutionise treatment for the blind.



The BrainPort converts visual images into a series of electrical pulses which are sent to the tongue. The different strength of the tingles can be read or interpreted so the user can mentally visualise their surroundings and navigate around objects.



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



L/Cpl Lundberg explained: "It feels like licking a nine volt battery or like popping candy.



"The camera sends signals down onto the lolly pop 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.



"One of the things it has enabled me to do is pick up objects straight away. I can reach out and pick them up when before I would be fumbling around to feel for them.



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



"This is another mobility device, it's not the be-all and end-all of my disability."



The MoD said it expected to pay the US around £18,000 for the device and training to enable the trial to take place.



Unveiling the BrainPort at the MoD headquarters in Whitehall, US Major General Gale Pollock, who worked on the scheme, said the BrainPort has 400 points sending information to the tongue connection.



Designers plan to expand this to 4,000 points, which would vastly upgrade the clarity of the image.



Users cannot speak or eat while using the BrainPort so designers are hoping to create a smaller device that could be permanently fixed behind the teeth or to the roof of the mouth, enabling more natural use.



She explained: "It's just so exciting to finally be able to say to people: here is a tool that may help you and start to restore hope to the visually impaired community. It's just wonderful."



Group Captain Rob Scott, who is L/Cpl Lundberg's eye doctor, travelled to the US for the BrainPort trials with him.



Explaining the workings of the BrainPort, he said: "It is certainly a device with absolutely huge potential.



"The BrainPort is a device that effectively lets blind people see through their tongue. What it uses is electro-tactile stimulation as a sensory substitution for vision.



"It allows an image of their surroundings to be experienced and helps find your way about a place. It is designed to help orientation in an unfamiliar environment."



The MoD are trialling BrainPort to discover what help it could offer service personnel who have suffered eye injuries.



L/Cpl Lundberg, who served with 2nd Battalion, Duke of Lancaster's, suffered injuries to his head, face and arm in the grenade blast.



His left eye was removed and he is profoundly blind in his right eye.



The MoD said that between July 2004 and July 2008, 62 soldiers sustained eye injuries while serving in Operation Herrick in Afghanistan. Of these, 15 lost their sight in one or both eyes.



Less than five soldiers were blinded during Operation Telic in Iraq, the MoD said.

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