SINGAPORE: Sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch - these are the five major senses that help us perceive the world around us. It is also through them that we derive a sense of well-being. A tight hug makes us feel calm and happy, and the taste of certain foods gives us pleasure.
Scientists are working on new inventions that may help patients with impaired senses. Channel NewsAsia’s The Big Idea explores some of them, including a vest that hugs, glasses that restore sight, and a spoon that could give water the taste of honey.
A MOTHER’S HUG, 24/7
For young people suffering from conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or depression, a long, loving hug may be all they need to to help them get through an anxiety attack. However, their parents cannot be with them constantly, especially when they go to school.
Dr James Teh, Founder and CEO of T. Ware, may have the solution. He invented the T-jacket, a vest that provides deep pressure that simulate the feeling of a hug, meant for those who often face stress and anxiety.
“Deep pressure is a form of calming agent. So it basically helps to provide a sensation which an individual with autism for example can focus on. It helps to shut out all the other sensory inputs from the environment,” said Dr Teh.
The T-jacket applies a firm squeeze to the skin, which activates the dorsal column in the spine to inhibit signals of pain and discomfort.
Dr Teh tests out the air sacs inside the T-jacket, which inflate to simulate the feeling of hugging.
A smartphone app controls the intensity of the hug that the T-jacket gives, with the maximum being akin to a bear hug.
According to Dr Nimesha Ranasighe, a research fellow at NUS-CUTE, the ability to taste is "something we take for granted”.
“Taste is one of the most pleasurable sensations we have and that actually drives us to eat more and get nutritions to our body," he said. "And in a way it is kind of a survival mechanism as well. Because if you consider the dementia patients who have this diminished taste sensation or restricted diet problems, especially the elderly people, they often refuse to eat and get the nutrition they need. Also, sometimes, they keep eating the same food and that gives you malnutrition.”
To help such patients, Dr Nimesha invented a digital spoon and a electronic water bottle that use electrical pulses to trick taste receptors.
He explained how the spoon works: “Adjust a setting on the spoon to indicate the taste I want - salty, sweet or sour. Then place it on my tongue. And voila! I taste salty. Never mind that there is nothing on the spoon.”
Dr Nimesha has won several international awards for his inventions.
The water bottle works in the same way. He believes that his inventions will encourage people to eat more healthily.
“Rather than putting condiments into your food or beverage, what if your beverage bottle, spoon or utensils give you the sense of flavours?” he said. “So imagine if you are eating something like vegetables and we can put any kind of flavor, meaty or chocolate, virtually.”
Mr Larry Hestler, who had been blind for three decades, had his vision partially restored two weeks after he started using the Argus Two.
The 33-year-old described the happy moment. “A few seconds went by and I thought 'Oh what is going to happen?' This huge flash of light came. And it was … it was so bright, and intense. And literally, my head snapped back.”
Argus Two was designed by Dr Paul Hahn, an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at Duke Eye Centre in the United States of America. It comprises a pair of glasses with a camera, a portable computer and a microchip that is implanted on the surface of the retina. The microchip bypasses dead cells in the retina and sends impulses that directly stimulate the healthy cells.
Users see patterns of light that correspond to locations, movements or shapes, and they learn to interpret them as visual forms.
Dr Hahn’s Argus Two sends flashes of light directly onto the retina through a microchip.
Although the Argus Two does not fully restore vision, Dr Hahn believes that it is a meaningful step towards helping the blind.
“These are patients who have understood and have accepted the fact that they’re never going to see again and to finally have some new technology where we can restore this level of vision is mind-blowing,” said Dr Hahn. “It’s really emotional and it’s really rewarding for someone like me.”
Watch the full episode of The Big Idea: It’s Making Sense to find out more about these innovative technologies. Catch new episodes of The Big Idea on Mon, 8pm (SG/HK), Channel NewsAsia.