3. Out of DarknessGiving sight to the blind. That’s the goal of BrainPort, a new device that bypasses the eyes in favor of, yes, the tongue. To function, a head-mounted camera captures images of its surroundings and relays the information via electric impulses to a postage-stamp-size tongue stimulator. (The tongue is packed with more sensory nerve endings than almost anywhere on the body.) If a ball is rolling toward you, you’ll feel a round shape traveling across your tongue, getting larger as it approaches. If you’re holding a poker hand, BrainPort will draw the cards. The developers at Wisconsin-based Wicab (wicab.com) say that getting the hang of the device takes a few hours, but using it in everyday situations takes much longer. To aid research, the company enlisted Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to summit Everest. Though he won’t be lugging it on an expedition anytime soon, he’s used BrainPort to achieve another first: playing rock-paper-scissors with his daughter.
How it works: Images from a forehead-mounted cam (1) are translated into electrical impulses, which are then "drawn" on the tongue. The brain creates a 3-D image (2) from these impulses.
4. User-Generated ScienceTake NASA software, a clever Web platform, and an ever growing army of camera-toting tourists and you get one of the smartest developments in animal science. The ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library, created by marine scientist Brad Norman, aims to decipher the mysterious migration habits of the world’s largest fish with user-generated data. How it works: Anyone who snaps a whale shark photo uploads the image to the database at whaleshark.org. There, a software originally designed to identify deep space constellations analyzes the shark’s signature pattern of spots behind the gills to see whether it has been photographed before. From your computer, you can track its past movements, if any were recorded, and be alerted to future sightings. It’s believed that a single whale shark can travel thousands of miles in its life, but scientists aren’t completely sure. So far, 160,000 photos have been collected and 1,400 whale sharks tagged. The response has been so positive that Norman plans to expand the system to track other animals, on land and in the sea, that sport distinctive stripes or spots. Ecotourism will never be the same.