The Skin as a Medium for Sensory Substitution

in Multisensory Research
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The last 50 years or so has seen great optimism concerning the potential of sensory substitution and augmentation devices to enhance the lives of those with (or even those without) some form of sensory loss (in practice, this has typically meant those who are blind or suffering from low vision). One commonly discussed solution for those individuals who are blind has been to use one of a range of tactile–visual sensory substitution systems that represent objects captured by a camera as outline images on the skin surface in real-time (what Loomis, Klatzky and Giudice, 2012, term general-purpose sensory substitution devices). However, despite the fact that touch, like vision, initially codes information spatiotopically, I would like to argue that a number of fundamental perceptual, attentional, and cognitive limitations constraining the processing of tactile information mean that the skin surface is unlikely ever to provide such general-purpose sensory substitution capabilities. At present, there is little evidence to suggest that the extensive cortical plasticity that has been demonstrated in those who have lost (or never had) a sense can do much to overcome the limitations associated with trying to perceive high rates of spatiotemporally varying information presented via the skin surface (no matter whether that surface be the back, stomach, forehead, or tongue). Instead, the use of the skin will likely be restricted to various special-purpose devices that enable specific activities such as navigation, the control of locomotion, pattern perception, etc.

The Skin as a Medium for Sensory Substitution

in Multisensory Research

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Figures

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    Kajimoto et al.’s (2006) FRS. As in Bach-y-Rita’s (1972) earlier TVSS system, the idea here is that a head-mounted camera converts a visual scene into the appropriate outline image. Thereafter, an array of 512 electrodes in a display pressed onto the user’s forehead represents that image to the user. Note how any problems associated with the segmentation of distinct objects from cluttered background scenes have been bypassed by presented the cup against a uniform white background here (see Note 7). [Image taken from Marks (2006).]

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    Results of a study of tactile numerosity judgments reported by Gallace et al. (2006b; Experiment 2). The results highlight the very limited ability of people to individuate more than two or three tactile stimuli, even when repeatedly presented on their skin surface. The straight line shows perfect performance, while the other two functions represent actual performance under conditions of single (solid line) versus repeated (dashed line) stimulus presentation. [Figure reprinted with permission from Gallace et al. (2006b).]

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