Loser: IEEE Spectrum on tongue display

IEEE Spectrum, January 2007One of my colleagues told me at lunch that he’d seen an IEEE Spectrum article saying that the Wicab tongue display was one of the ‘loser’ technologies of 2007, so I thought I’d take a quick break from the idea of intuitive displays to deal with this. I was very disappointed with the article, in that none of the ‘experts’ quoted seemed to have any specific knowledge of the device, how it was perceived by users, what it felt like to use etc. Also, it was not noted that these people were, essentially, competitors. (I have no axe to grind except that I think it was bad journalism).

I have no idea whether the project will succeed or not (something that will probably have more to do with business model and marketing than technological excellence), but it’s very early days and if the company can, as they say they intend, turn the device into something that can be worn as a plate in the mouth, I think it at least has a chance. I won’t reiterate why, as it’s in my previous blog on the subject, detailing my first-hand experience with the device.

Instead, I thought I’d share a story about another use for the technology that Spectrum didn’t mention, one that suggests there is a lot of work to be done in understanding how this new kind of device works with our brain. I was going to get onto this today anyway, but this gives me additional motivation!

Yuri Danilov, Director of Clinical Research at Wicab, told me about Cheryl, a woman whose vestibular system was severely damaged due to a bad reaction to an antibiotic. She was given the ‘balance’ version of the display, one that fed her information from a gyroscope. The tongue signal was a bit like a 2D spirit level, with a moving ‘image’ of a circle that had to be kept centered for the patient to stay balanced.

Yuri explained that they let her use the balance display and found that the effect would last for a little while after she removed the device. Five minutes online would give her a couple of unaided, functional minutes. But when they pushed her exposure time up to 20 minutes, she was able to walk around normally for almost five hours, even able to ride a bike and skip rope. According to Danilov, they eventually settled down to a regular regime of 20 minutes every two or three days. “As far as Cheryl was concerned,” he says, “she was cured.”

But she wasn’t. She felt good, though, and she stopped using the display. “Three weeks later, she came back and was almost as bad as she’d been at the very beginning,” says Danilov. Happily, after two days of re-training she got it all back. But now she’s hooked.

Danilov and his colleagues don’t really know why their tongue display helps—they haven’t yet had the chance to do the brain imaging studies that might tell them. But they have some ideas. They think the device is providing positive feedback for the Cheryl’s senses that are working, like sight, and they suspect that her broken vestibular system is sending out a small amount of good information along with lots of nonsense: the tongue display is providing positive reinforcement (feedback) for the good information and helping to filter out the bad. In other words, the gyroscope is enhancing Cheryl’s senses until they can act as an optimized filter for her sense of balance. But without regular feedback, that filter breaks down.

Maybe the tongue display will be a loser for giving people back their sight, but I think the Spectrum team are losers for judging it so incredibly early in its development.