My experiences observing lunar eclipses as a blind person, using the BrainPort artificial vision device

Since I was a kid I’ve heard people comment on the moon when it was full, and when in grade school my class would take a field trip to the high school I would later attend where the rest of them would be given a show in a planetarium. I thought it was pretty cool, and wished I could have seen it too. My  third grade teacher, Mrs. Love, told us that the next solar eclipse would be in 2017. I went home and told my parents, hey Mom, you’ll be 95. She wasn’t thrilled about living that long, but she did. One hundred, however, was too long of a stretch for Dad. Time passed, i continued to grow, but i never lost interest in astronomy, and was still occasionally frustrated that I couldn’t observe it.


Back in the 1970s Dr. Paul Bach-Y-Rita began researching how to convey visual information to the blind through touch. In the early 2000s, Paul, along with a company he founded named Wicab had found the best way to do this was through the tongue. In 2009, the had a device holdable in the hand that was connected to a camera in a pair of glasses that transmitted shapes derived from the camera view on to a display of electrons, 20 by 20 that rested on the tongue. It is called the BrainPort.


I had met Dr. Bach-Y-Rita as a seventh grader and had taken part in some of his tests. Then, the technology was not portable at all, but that I already had learned how to understand how project worked, they reached out to me, looking for more testers, when the BrainPort became a stand-alone and portable product.


One day I wondered if the BrainPort could see the moon, I asked the two engineers, both named Rich, if they thought it would work. I was told that the moon has 1 degree of view in the sky, and should be visible if the BrainPort was all the way zoomed in. With the help of 2 friends in 2 separate events, I was able to see the moon very easily with the BrainPort, Looking around for it was not practical, but once someone helped point the camera in the right direction, it was very doable.


Fred Dai Hui started working for Wicab in 2013, and when I found out there would be a lunar eclipse in April that year, I asked Fred if we could try to watch it. Not only did he agree, but he also got us to join in with an astronomy class at the university taught by a PHD student he knew.


Alan Shepard wrote about how when on an Apollo mission, seeing the earth from space completely rearranged the importance of things in his mind, he named it the “overview effect” I totally felt that watching the lunar eclipse that night. I realized that possibly millions of people all across North America were watching it just like I was. Feeling the shape of the moon on the tongue display reminded me of how hard candy usually round in shape would melt on my tongue. I also found that because the moon was at the limit of how far the BrainPort could zoom in that the smallest of movements would lose it and then I have to find it again moving the lens very slowly.


It was euphoric for me. That i could observe a lunar eclipse just like some of my sighted friends were, but also excited that I was probably the first totally blind person to do it. 


The BrainPort cannot show color, so I couldn’t see that the moon was red at all, only feel the shape of it as it was occluded until there was nothing. Then, during the time of totality, I could relax and move around without losing my place. When the moon began to emerge, Fred helped me find it again, and we watched it expand. I was initially surprised that it had moved but then after some thought, recalled that it would because of the Earth’s rotation. That the moon reappeared from the opposite side from which it had disappeared was also new for me, I had never heard of thought that before. I, without visual experiences sighted people have thought like a blind person, and figured it would emerge just like it had been occluded except in exact reverse.

During many lunar eclipses, the moon passes through 2 parts of the Earth’s shadow. First, the outer penumbra greatly dims direct sunlight shining on the moon, and then second, the inner umbra takes that dimmed light and refracts it through the Earth’s atmosphere. The refraction only leaves the longest wave lengths unfiltered, which appear as red to the human eye.


The second time I saw a lunar eclipse through the BrainPort ended just before dawn. I noticed that the moon was much lower in the sky, and that the light pollution was making it harder for me to also see the moon. I complained about that to Fred, and he was who helped me understand about the light pollution.


I’d heard people comment on how objects could seem closer to each other than they actually were, like how the sun touched the mountain peeks, but until my third lunar eclipse, that concept was completely abstract to my understanding. My lacking of visual experiences just couldn’t allow me to wrap my mind around it. When the third time I saw a lunar eclipse began, there were significant clouds that initially covered the moon, but thankfully cleared out soon after. When the clouds began to move away, there was a moment where they seemed to be touching the moon. To realize this I had to quickly flip between BrainPort settings that either stimulated the display for dark objects against a light background, or vice versa. That was another overview effect for me. I was also able to line my iPhone camera up with the lens on the BrainPort and get a picture.


I haven’t seen another planet yet, but would like to. I still want to try looking through a telescope with the BrainPort one day, that would certainly be another reality changing event.


The BrainPort won’t ever be able to display colors. The tongue just can’t distinguish enough gradients in stimulation. Also, even if the BrainPort had color filters so it only stimulated the tongue for specific colors, the fact that I have never seen colors makes imagining them impossible for me. Someone who was previously sighted but after losing their sight used the BrainPort totally blind might be able to do so. It would be interesting to observe.


I still lack the visual experiences I would have had if I’d been sighted, but what the BrainPort has been able to show me has opened my mind in many ways. I will always be grateful for the work Paul Bach-Y-Rita put into developing the BrainPort that lasted over thirty years, and glad that God put me in the right place at the right time so that I could have a small part in it’s progress.


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