Sensory substitution is a method of replacing the information flow of one sense with that of another sense. The research dates back to the 1960s and has been used in various ways to help people with physical impairments. Biohackers and other researchers have recently adopted these techniques to enhance and extend the sensory experiences of the non-impaired with potentially practical applications, some of which might even enter the mainstream market.

What’s changing?

Recently, scientists have taught mice to detect infrared light through their sense of touch. They hope to use the findings to help develop prosthetics that send the human brain tactile feedback using infrared light. However, such a sense may possibly, with much further research, be used by security personnel to detect thermal imaging without a video screen.

Other researchers have developed a full body suit with a very different purpose. Called the SpiderSense suit, it is covered by sensors that can alert different parts of the body to the proximity of objects in the environment. Of course, such a suit could help the blind navigate and help the deaf avoid being surprised by moving objects outside their field of vision, but it could also help rescue workers, such as firefighters wandering in pitch black smoke, dodge falling objects.

The Tongueduino is a device that converts data from a sensor into electrical pulses across a user’s tongue, and the researchers are working to create a wireless version. Being extremely sensitive, the tongue can quickly adapt stimuli into our senses, but the sensory expansion depends on the sensor hooked up to the device. A camera hooked up to the device helps the blind “see,” but with a sensor that detects magnetic fields, Tongueduino turns the tongue into a compass and adds a sixth sense to the human condition. The enhancing of a user’s sense of direction could aid rescue workers attempting to navigate a disaster area.

A similar device is also in development as a vest that sends the information to the torso instead of the tongue. David Eagleman whose lab is developing the vest says it could be used to sense live stock market data or similar data streams. If you are concerned about how this could ever work, Eagleman points out that our auditory system converts auditory signals into electrical signals for the brain, and our sense of touch is doing the same thing. Neil Harbisson is a prime example. He was born colorblind but implanted with a color sensor that converts colors to music, and he says he has begun dreaming in color and painting songs. Although Harbisson’s descriptions sound like synesthesia, he proves the point that the human brain can adapt to electronic sensory substitution.

Why is this important?

For rescue workers and security personnel of any type, it is always important to have the best information as quickly as possible to accomplish their goals and to keep them safe. Electronically expanding their senses can help in both of these areas in a less cumbersome, non-invasive, and inconspicuous manner. No doubt, applications will also be found for people in other hazardous industries such as mining.

Eagleman’s idea that consumers may want to sense live feeds instead of reading them remains to be seen, but the technology could allow busy individuals to remove technology as a barrier to socializing. People will not have to check their smartphones every few minutes to keep in touch because they would perceive the information in a more peripheral manner. Although sensory expansion is a radical idea for the mainstream marketplace right now, the technology could find practical usage in everyday life and free society from some or even all handheld devices or visibly worn gadgets such as Google Glass.

By Dennis Draeger

About the author:

Dennis is a foresight researcher providing organizations with a broader, deeper, and longer view of the future with ways to exploit opportunities and protect against contingencies. He has focused on technology’s place in social change and consulted on the social implications of various technologies with local SMEs, global corporations, and government agencies in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australasia. He is a Senior Research Associate with Shaping Tomorrow in the UK and the head of Aiglatson Foresight Research in New Zealand.

Image: Head and Brain Gears in Progress from