London, June 5 : French researchers have invented a "tongue display" that can enable people suffering from balance problems recover their poise, or help those on wheelchairs avoid pressure sores.
Yohan Payan, a researcher at the TIMC lab near Grenoble, has revealed that the device is worn in the mouth like an orthodontic retainer.
He says that the device contains 36 electrodes that transmit electrical impulses to the tongue.
"The sensation is a kind of 'ticklish' feeling," New Scientist magazine quoted Payan as saying.
"The idea is that if one of your senses is lacking, you try to use another sense to convey information," he added.
He says that it would take about 10 minutes for a person to learn to use the information from the display.
The researcher has revealed that he and his colleagues wanted to aid people with affected perception of body movements and balance.
As to how the tongue display works, Payan says the device receives output form the movement sensors on a person's body to help the brain detect and correct stability and posture.
Trials of the tongue display have shown promising results, he adds.
Telling about one experiment whose participants had become worse at balancing when their backs were tired, he revealed that the volunteers could compensate for difficulties when they felt foot pressure on their tongue too.
Payang said that in another study that projected data from the ankles onto the tongue, the participants found that they were better able to compensate for difficulties in sensing the joints when their muscles were tired.
He even revealed that his team was trying their tongue display on people in wheelchairs to help them stay healthy.
"Paraplegic patients suffer from pressure sore problems due to the absence of perception of the point of pressure on the buttock area," he said.
For their experiment, the researchers connect pressure sensors to the wheelchair's seat so that they would make a person wearing the tongue display aware of pressure they would otherwise not feel, and accordingly shift position to avoid sores.
Payan believes that the same technique may prove helpful for amputees who generally have balance problems or pressure sores from their prosthesis.
The actual purpose behind the designing of the tongue display was to create an alternative to vision.
Its developer Kurt Kaczmarek, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said that he was excited to see Payan's team make the device smaller and wireless.
"It will enable not only practical, wide-scale deployment of rehabilitation applications for balance or vision disorders, but also a new era in human-machine interfaces," he said.
Tongue displays could also be a help in situations where people are overloaded with information, such as when flying aircraft, driving racing cars, taking space walks or new communication devices, he added.