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On Tech & Vision With Dr. Cal Roberts

Sep 8, 2021

This podcast is about big ideas on how technology is making life better for people with vision loss.

Today’s big idea centers on the place where big ideas get born — the human brain. In today’s episode, Dr. Roberts and his guests explore theories of brain plasticity, sensory substitution, and sensory augmentation. Dr. Patricia Grant discusses the BrainPort, which uses sensory substitution in this case, the nerve fibers in the tongue, to send information to the brain instead of the optic nerve. Dr. John-Ross Rizzo is developing a device to be called the Sensory Halo, which is supported by sensory augmentation. Both guests share what is being learned about sensory substitution and augmentation through these technologies and how this understanding will help perfect future devices to enable people with vision impairment to see better.


The Big Takeaways:

  • The BrainPort is a headset device with a camera that picks up visual input as the eyes would. It uses the theory of sensory substitution by sending stimulation to the nerve fibers on the tongue. The device picks up visual formation in grayscale imagery: lighter areas of the images produce high stimulation on the tongue, while dark areas produce none. This contrast allows users to identify objects in their environment.
  • The BrainPort device is meant for people who are blind so it’s not crowding out a person’s residual vision. And surprisingly, both users who are congenitally blind and users who have seen before and have a visual memory — have performed the same in clinical trials.  This shows that users are not experiencing a memory of sight. They are learning to interpret the camera’s image through stimulating the nerve fibers on their tongue.
  • In the future, there are opportunities for collaboration between BrainPort and other technologies to continue to enhance the user experience to create more autonomy.
  • Another device being developed that draws on some aspects of sensory augmentation is the Sensory Halo. Using a device with sensory augmentation is more intuitive to use than a device that uses sensory substitution. The Sensory Halo is designed to empower the wearer by delivering key pieces of information to safely and independently navigate their environment.



  • “We put the brain port on him and started training him, and we were doing some mobility tasks...And I was walking around the room and he would just scan the room. Then all of a sudden, I could feel when he perceived me.” — Dr. Patricia Grant
  • “The great thing about the BrainPort is that it gives a person their own sense. It’s something that they can experience on their own, and that is of great value to a person who is blind.” — Dr. Patricia Grant
  • “Simply put, I just want to amplify your existing senses and augment what I can give to you right now so that you can have a richer experience.” — Dr. John-Ross Rizzo


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Guest Bios:

Patricia Grant, PhD, Director of Clinical Research, Wicab, Inc.

  • Dr. Grant joined Wicab, Inc. as Director of Clinical Research in February 2014. She previously served as Co-Investigator for Wicab’s FDA clinical trial and currently serves as the Principal Investigator of a clinical trial, funded by the US Department of Defense, investigating the safety and efficacy of the BrainPort for people who have been blinded by traumatic injury. Her future research goals include demonstrating the value of the BrainPort in the workplace, in addition to teaching spatial concepts to children.
  • Prior to joining Wicab, Dr. Grant was the Director of Research at the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind and Visually Impaired and a Research Specialist in the Low Vision Research and the Applied Physics laboratories in the Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In addition to her work at Wicab, Dr. Grant has contributed to research in the areas of methods for assessing loss of vision due to retinal disease, treatments to optimize remaining vision, the psychological effects of vision loss, and the measurement of retinal image quality and ocular aberration. She earned a BA in Psychology, an MS in Public Health Sciences, and PhD from the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a concentration in behavioral science and eye health promotion.


John-Ross (JR) Rizzo, MD, MSCI, Director of Innovation and Technology, Assistant Professor Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and Department of Neurology, NYU Langone Medical Center

  • John-Ross (JR) Rizzo, MD, MSCI, is a physician-scientist at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is serving as the Director of Innovation and Technology for the Department of Physical medicine and rehabilitation at Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, with cross-appointments in the Department of Neurology and the Departments of Biomedical & Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering New York University Tandon School of Engineering. He is also the Associate Director of Healthcare for the NYU Wireless Laboratory in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at New York University Tandon School of Engineering. He leads the Visuomotor Integration Laboratory (VMIL), where his team focuses on eye-hand coordination, as it relates to acquired brain injury, and the REACTIV Laboratory (Rehabilitation Engineering Alliance and Center Transforming Low Vision), where his team focuses on advanced wearables for the sensory deprived and benefits from his own personal experiences with vision loss.
  • He is also the Founder and Chief Medical Advisor of Tactile Navigation Tools, LLC, where he and his team work to disrupt the assistive technology space for those with visual impairments of all kinds, enhancing human capabilities. He partners with a number of industrial sponsors and laboratories throughout the country to help breakthrough new barriers in disability research and/or motor control.


Host Bio:

Dr. Calvin W. Roberts

  • Calvin W. Roberts, MD, is President and Chief Executive Officer of Lighthouse Guild, the leading organization dedicated to providing exceptional services that inspire people who are visually impaired to attain their goals. Dr. Roberts has a unique blend of academic, clinical, business, and hands-on product development experience. Dr. Roberts is a Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He was formerly Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Eye Care, at Bausch Health Companies where he coordinated global development and research efforts across their vision care, pharmaceutical, and surgical business units. As a practicing ophthalmologist from 1982 to 2008, he performed more than 10,000 cataract surgeries as well as 5,000 refractive and other corneal surgeries. He is credited with developing surgical therapies, over-the-counter products for vision care, prescription ocular therapeutics, and innovative treatment regimens. He also holds patents on the wide-field specular microscope and has done extensive research on ophthalmic non-steroidals and postoperative cystoid macular edema. Dr. Roberts has co-founded a specialty pharmaceutical company and is a frequent industry lecturer and author. He currently serves as an Independent Director on multiple corporate boards and has served as a consultant to Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, and Novartis. A graduate of Princeton University and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, Dr. Roberts completed his internship and ophthalmology residency at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center in New York. He also completed cornea fellowships at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston.