By Christian Debenedetti
In a cluttered office on the third floor of the MIT Museum building in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, a blue-eyed woman peers intently into a small white
box. The box, cobbled together out of foam board, seems a common thing. But
inside it, something extraordinary is revealing itself. As the woman works a
joystick, a pixilated art museum unfolds before her. A monitor to the side
shows her progress as she approaches paintings and descends stairs. It's a
vivid sight, made even more remarkable by the fact that the woman is blind.
Elizabeth Goldring, a sixty-one-year-old poet and visual artist, has
recently added the title of inventor to her résumé. She calls the strange
apparatus she's looking through a seeing machine. It uses low-cost LEDs,
light-emitting diodes, to beam images of slow-moving 3-D environments past the
damaged tissue of her eyes and directly onto her retinas.
Goldring has battled diabetes since early adulthood and macular degeneration
since the mid-1970s, when she abruptly lost her vision. During an exam about
ten years ago to determine if she had any operable retina left, Goldring was
able to see an abstract shape beamed onto a tiny section of one of her retinas.
Her doctor was using a scanning laser ophthalmoscope, or SLO. She asked to see
a "sun." Her doctor obliged, and she could see that, too. "I was
fascinated," she recalls. "I knew this was something really
She asked to try using it at home, but since the SLO carried a price tag of
$100,000, this was out of the question.
Goldring was undeterred. She believed the technology could be adapted to
give people like her-provided they have some useful retina tissue left-a chance
to see something more than stick figures and test patterns. She contacted the
SLO's inventor, Robert Webb, of Harvard, and, working with MIT students and
doctors out of her small lab at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, she
built a pair of desktopsized prototype SLOs. The latest color model is the
little gadget sitting before us. It costs around $4,000.
Informal tests with ten subjects were successful, and Goldring is now
experimenting with the incorporation of auditory and tactile elements. She
hopes that one day a blind person might be able to use her machine to
"previsit" unfamiliar places like subway stations. But she's careful to
point out that the seeing machine has limitations.
"I never want to cross a street wearing the seeing machine," she
says. "But if you don't know what your grandkids look like, we can do