Researchers at the University of Bath, UK, say that a device that can train the brain to turn sounds into images could be used as an affordable and non-invasive alternative treatment for blind and partially-sighted people. The vOICe sensory substitution device uses sounds to build an image in the minds of blind people of the things around them.

A research team examined how blindfolded sighted participants responded to an eye test using the device. They were asked to perform a standard eye chart test. Without any training in the use of the device, participants were able to perform the best performance possible, nearly 20/400. This limit appears to be the highest resolution currently possible with the ever-improving technology.

The vOICe” is a visual-to-auditory sensory substitution device that encodes images taken by a camera worn by the user into “soundscapes” such that experienced users can extract information about their surroundings.

They say that a more complete understanding of the way in which this occurs may assist in the development of such devices that not only replicate lost sensory functionality, particularly in the blind, but along with research on synesthesia and multisensory processing, call into question our notion of senses as functionally separate, non-overlapping entities.