Can sensory data be fed through unusual sensory channels? And can the brain learn to extract the meaning of such information streams?
Yes and yes. Sensory substitution is a non-invasive technique for circumventing the loss of one sense by feeding its information through another channel. We are leveraging this technique to develop a non-invasive, low-cost vibratory vest to allow those with deafness or severe hearing impairments to perceive auditory information through small vibrations on their torso.
(Figure from Scott Novich and David Eagleman)
Watch a video explaining the background and future of the Vest from the TED2015 conference:
To make this work, we are capitalizing on recent advances in audio codecs and digital signal processing. In parallel, we are forging new research paths to maximize the information capacity of skin--for example, by using small 'sweeps' of vibratory motors rather than a single motor that turns on and off. As it turns out, people are much better at detecting these sweeps (green data points, below):
For the larger theoretical ideas behind this project, see a 3 minute video on BigThink: Welcome to Your Future Brain.
The long term goal of our work is to better understand how sensory streams can be re-packaged into atypical sensory channels to restore perception or give new perceptions. Beyond applications for hearing, this research will contribute to a generalized framework for designing devices to send any kinds of information to the brain for sensory processing via atypical sensory modalities. Such a framework will feed both rehabilitative and assistive technologies
For more on the principles of neural plasticity that underlie this work, please keep an eye out for David's 2016 book on brain plasticity, LiveWired.