A Middleton company’s device to help blind people “see” — in the making for 15 years — has received approval to be sold in Europe.
Wicab’s BrainPort V100 will be available in Germany, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom starting in June, around the same time the company submits an application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seeking approval to sell the device in the U.S., chief executive Robert Beckman said.
“After over 15 years of research at Wicab, we are very excited to be able to introduce the BrainPort V100 to the general public in the European economic area,” Beckman said.
The BrainPort V100 — first dreamed up by the late UW-Madison professor Paul Bach-y-Rita — consists of a pair of sunglasses with a tiny video camera, a 1-inch-square mouthpiece with electrodes, and a hand-held controller. After about 20 hours of supervised training, blind people can perceive things such as shapes and letters through sensations on the tongue, Beckman said.
“We’re providing perceptual information; we’re not providing visual information,” he said.
The company is calling the BrainPort V100 a non-invasive assistive aid. It cannot be called a visual aid because the images are not transmitted through the optic nerve, he said.
He likened the process to drawing a picture on someone’s back with a finger. “We draw a streaming picture on your tongue, using electrotactile information,” Beckman said.
Wicab applied for approval in Europe last October and was required to meet quality and safety standards.
For the FDA, a 12-month study of the device’s safety and effectiveness is near completion at seven North American sites. More than 50 people have participated in the study, in which they have had to identify objects on a table and signs posted in a hallway and read short words on a computer screen.
“It’s a test of their mobility and their ability to use the device for something very practical. It’s something that they can’t do with their seeing-eye dog or their cane,” Beckman said.
He said he is “pleased with the results to date” but would not disclose details yet.
Wicab has fewer than 10 employees, and Beckman said although the device will be assembled in Middleton, he does not expect a quick increase in staff. That’s because the BrainPort V100 will cost about $10,000. “The reality is: Without government reimbursement or philanthropic organizations to provide support, affordability is going to be an issue,” Beckman said.
Beckman said Wicab has received $10.5 million from investors since the company was founded in 1998, plus $2.5 million from Google to fund the research studies, and a $3.2 million contract from the Army.
He said future generations of the BrainPort will link it to a smartphone or tablet that, through various applications, could do such things as recognize faces or read restaurant menus out loud.