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Super Senses Now on Tip of Tongue

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- In their quest to create the superwarrior of the future, some military researchers aren't focusing on the obvious body parts such as legs or biceps or hearts. They're looking at tongues.

By routing signals from helmet-mounted cameras, sonar and other equipment through the tongue to the brain, they hope to give elite troops superhuman senses similar to those of owls, snakes and fish.

Researchers at Florida's Institute for Human and Machine Cognition envision their work giving Army Rangers 360-degree unobstructed vision at night and allowing Navy SEALs to sense sonar in their heads while maintaining normal vision underwater -- turning science fiction into reality.

The device, known as the "Brain Port," was pioneered more than 30 years ago by Paul Bach-y-Rita, a University of Wisconsin neuroscientist. He began routing images from a camera through electrodes taped to people's backs and later discovered the tongue was a superior transmitter.

A narrow strip of red plastic connects the Brain Port to the tongue, where 144 microelectrodes transmit information through nerve fibers to the brain. Instead of holding and looking at compasses and bulky handheld sonar devices, the divers can process the information through their tongues, said Anil Raj, the project's lead scientist.

In testing, blind people found doorways, noticed people walking in front of them and caught balls.

Michael Zinszer, a longtime Navy diver and director of Florida State University's Underwater Crime Scene Investigation School, took part in testing using the tongue to transmit an electronic compass and an electronic depth sensor while in a swimming pool.

"You are feeling the outline of this image," he said. "I was in the pool, they were directing me to a very small object, and I was able to locate everything very easily."

Raj said the objective for the military is to keep Navy divers' hands and eyes free. "It will free up their eyes to do what those guys really want to, which is to look for those mines and see shapes that are coming out of the murk."

Sonar is the next step. A lot depends on technological developments to make sonar smaller -- handheld sonar is now about the size of a lunchbox.

"If they could get it small enough, it could be mounted on a helmet, then they could pan around on their heads and they could feel the sonar on their tongues with good registration to what they are seeing visually," Raj said.

The research at the Florida institute, the first to involve military uses of sensory augmentation, is funded by the Defense Department.

Researchers plan to officially demonstrate the system to Navy and Marine Corps divers this month. If the military screeners like what they see, it could be put on a "rapid response" to get in the hands of military users in the next three to six months.

Work on the infrared-tongue vision for Army Rangers is not as far along. But Raj said the potential usefulness of the night-vision technology is tremendous. It would allow soldiers to work in the dark without cumbersome night-vision goggles and to "see out the back of their heads," he said.

-- Associated Press


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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