The one thing that every technologist shares is the desire to solve a problem, and there are several as-yet unsolved issues that relate to disability. It's not all bad news, however, since in the last few months we've seen inventions that help the blind get around, paraplegics play soccer and stroke victims to communicate. Now, researchers at Colorado State University has developed a way that could help the large proportion of people who aren't able to have a cochlear implant regain a form of hearing.Rather than attempting to fix the issue, the team has gone the route of sensory substitution, which is to swap out one sense for another. The most common example of this is when blind people feel braille rather than reading text, since the solution here isn't to cure their blindness, but to find a way around it. Similarly, instead of hearing audible signals, the new device would be an electrode-filled retainer that presses against the roof of your mouth. The retainer would be connected to a Bluetooth microphone, and so when someone spoke, these sounds would be translated into a series of vibrations, which you could then read by pressing your tongue to the roof of your month. All a person would then have to do is learn to decode these vibrations, which is apparently easier to do than some people would believe.
The project is the brainchild of professor John Williams, who stumbled across the problem during a self-described mid-life crisis. The engineer had successfully developed electric propulsion systems for spacecraft, and was struggling to find a new challenge. Unfortunately, a lifetime of sticking his head into vacuum chambers caused him to develop tinnitus, which is what prompted him to begin investigating cochlear implants. It wasn't long after that he decided to build something of this own design.
There's still a long way to go, of course, before this technology could be used in the real world. That's why Williams has enlisted the help of neuroscientist Leslie Stone-Roy to help map the tongue to find the best locations for the vibrating electrodes. Still, the technology is promising enough that it'll be spun out as a start-up, Sapien LLC, so expect a long line of stories full of "speaking in tongues" puns to be heading right around the corner.