The Blind Could Learn To See Using Animal ‘Whiskers’

Scientists look to rats to help create life-altering measures for the visually impaired.

The animal world has some unique senses that humans have not been able to take advantage of.  For example, rats use a sense called ‘whisking,’ where they move their facial whiskers back and forth at about eight times a second to locate objects in their nearby environment.  In a new project, Israeli scientists have given people artificial ‘rat whiskers’ to sense the world around them, and found that they were able to use them to ‘see’ within hours.

Researchers at The Weizman Institute Of Science attached 30cm long ‘whiskers’ to the index finger of each hand of a blindfolded subject and asked them to carry out a simple location task. Two poles were placed at arm’s distance on either side of the subject, with one a bit farther back than the other. Using just their whiskers, the subjects were challenged to figure out which pole was farther away.  On the first day of the experiment, subjects picked up the new sense so well that they could correctly identify a pole that was set back by only 8cm.  Over the course of the experiment, some subjects began to detect a difference of as little as 1cm.

The findings of this experiment have yielded new insight in to the process of sensing and ‘seeing,’ and could open up new methods in developing aids for the visually impaired.  The findings of this experiment were expressed by Dr. Amos Arieli:

Our vision for the future is to help blind people ‘see’ with their fingers. Small devices that translate video to mechanical stimulation, based on principles of active sensing that are common to vision and touch, could provide an intuitive, easily used sensory aid.

Whiskers used as visual aids

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