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Biotech Science

Seeing With Your Skin? 138

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the eyes-in-the-back-of-my-head dept.
Iddo Genuth writes to tell us that a researcher from Tel Aviv University is exploring the possibility that humans may be able to "see" via their skin. Professor Leonid Yaroslavsky hopes to utilize this possible technology to find solutions for the blind in addition to new types of image capture that might be able to work where conventional lenses fail. Unfortunately he has a long uphill battle ahead to convince others that his theories are possible. "The lenses currently used for optics-based imaging have many problems. They only work within a limited range of electromagnetic radiation. Relatively, these are still costly devices greatly limited by weight and field of view. The imaging Professor Yaroslavsky has in mind has no lenses and he believes the devices can be adapted to any kind of radiation and wavelength. They could essentially work with a 360-degree field of view and their imaging capability will only be determined by computer power rather than the laws of light diffraction."
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Seeing With Your Skin?

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  • by BWJones (18351) * on Friday October 03, 2008 @04:24PM (#25251171) Homepage Journal

    As a vision scientist, my eyebrows are raised. I am highly skeptical for a variety of really, very good reasons...

    • by philspear (1142299) on Friday October 03, 2008 @04:29PM (#25251227)

      Yes, but does that increase or decrease what you're seeing with your forehead?

      • Follow the money. (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward
        If you would like to see with your wallet, here is the donation page [aftau.org]. It's a press release of an organization that wants money. Does someone at Slashdot take money to pretend that these Tel Aviv University press releases are stories?
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by eggnoglatte (1047660)

          WTF? Tel Aviv University is a very decent research institute that has made many important contributions to science. No, I am not and have never been affiliated with them, but the page you are referring to is obviously that of an alumni organization. And yes, they do raise money for the university, that is what alumni organizations do.

          As for Yaroslavsky (the prof working on this "seeing skin" project), I know neither him nor this project (at least not more than the press release states), but his publication

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Psychotria (953670)
      I have read your comments before and can infer that you're very good in your field. You have pretty cool monitors anyway. My question is this: _Assuming_ that it is possible to "see" with skin, my guess would be that the 'resolution' would be the limiting factor. Obviously the skin can detect many wavelengths of light--I am having trouble jumping from this thought to the thought of the skin resolving those sensations into an image. You, rightly I think, say that you're skeptical, but you don't expand on any
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by MichaelSmith (789609)

        Obviously the skin can detect many wavelengths of light--I am having trouble jumping from this thought to the thought of the skin resolving those sensations into an image.

        Blind people seem to be able to do that with braile. Maybe a pattern of bumps can work in a similar way to a pattern of warm spots on the skin.

        • by ardle (523599)
          I didn't RTFA but the idea seems plausible.
          I recall Richard Dawkins saying that eyes tend to evolve from photoreceptive skin cells.
          The brain is the most important organ that "sees"; it's the thing that does the image processing. Or, if you look at it another way, the brain constructs the image from available data.
          If it were medically possible to stimulate a patch of skin cells to transmit more light information to the brain - and correspondingly stimulate a neural pathway (who knows, maybe even all the
          • It might be a bit like echolocation. We all use it to some degree without being aware of it and some blind people have learnt to use it as a substitute for vision.
            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765)

              It's nothing like echolocation. First of all, echolocation is active scanning, vision is passive scanning (nobody can detect you're looking at them, however you can tell if someone's using echolocation). Echolocation is dependant upon 1 or 2 sensors, while vision needs thousands (and prefers millions) of sensors.

              The calculations are explained in this link :

              arXivBlog [arxivblog.com]

              The article makes several good points. After minimal practice you are able to identify the location of the sun blindfolded.

              A bit more practice a

              • by tenco (773732)

                After minimal practice you are able to identify the location of the sun blindfolded.

                Some people actually have to practice that? Simply turn around until your face gets warm.

                Nevertheless clearly we can detect that radiation.

                I dont' think we detect the radiation. We detect the warmth the radiation produces in our skin. So it's not really different from feeling warmth by touching a hot object (both rely on our skin getting warmer). For the rest: i think it's quite possible put maybe this is a differen effect. In pitch-dark rooms you sometimes can "feel" close walls or large solid objects.

                • In pitch-dark rooms you sometimes can "feel" close walls or large solid objects.

                  Are you talking about rooms you're familiar with or unfamilar rooms? For example, say I blindfolded you and stuck you in with zero light and did not allow you to speak ('cause that may mean that you can use echoes as a cue) would you be able to tell where the walls were? If the answer is yes, then that needs to be investigated. Note also that, perhaps, your walking may produce subtle echo effects.

                  • Air flow may also play a role
                    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                      by Psychotria (953670)
                      Radiant heat and reflection may also play a role. The list goes on. All this stuff needs to be eliminated or accounted for when you design your experiment. I am not disagreeing with you btw... just interested :-)
                • by foobsr (693224)
                  In pitch-dark rooms you sometimes can "feel" close walls or large solid objects.

                  Microgravity

                  CC.
              • by foobsr (693224)
                but also to detect hot objects before touching them

                From quite a distance ! Just imagine you live on a tree and only realize that it is burning right under you — would'nt it be of some 'evolutionary advantage' if you were able to detect the fire earlier (without actually seeing it)?

                CC.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by BungaDunga (801391)
            They've actually done that. Big mechanical bunch of pins or something in the back of a chair. A camera that makes each pin act as a pixel and poke into the subject's back. Terribly unwieldy, but it does give people an image in their mind's eye.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        I am having trouble jumping from this thought to the thought of the skin resolving those sensations into an image.

        As I understand it, that's more of a matter of the brain rewiring itself to interpret the signals coming from that patch of skin differently than any limitation of the nerves in the skin itself. [wikipedia.org] There is an interesting account of what this is like in an old Wired article [wired.com] around page 5 the author experiences a rather sudden shift as his brain learns to interpret visual signals differently.
      • by foobsr (693224)
        I am having trouble jumping from this thought to the thought of the skin resolving those sensations into an image

        It need not necessarily be an image — a representation of the environment would (does) suffice (and of course it needs a lot of practice to achieve). On a side note, the formulation using the concept of an 'image' (to me) supports the idea that perception is very heavily biased towards vision (which, if you think that balance and adequate proportion are crucial has implications on its ow
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MichaelSmith (789609)
      The article doesn't say what the resolution is supposed to be. Most of us could detect a light globe a short distance behind us. Thats a kind of vision. Our skin reacts to infrared photons.

      My mother is a teacher and used to work with children who were totally deaf and blind. I was amazed to see how aware they could be of their surroundings, and how much they could learn, though all of their communication was based on touch.
    • But surely as a scientist you have an open mind? I don't think they are talking about 'seeing' the way we see to read. The forms of 'skin vision' cited are all ways to detect electromagnetic radiation but none of them would allow one to, for example, read Slashdot. There is vision and there is vision. I think in this case they are just using the term a bit loosely. I'm a bit skeptical about some of the forward looking claims as well, but this might just bear further research.

      • Each scientist has a certain balance between open-mindedness and skepticism. I personally favor open-mindedness, even if it comes at the cost of adopting the occasional wrong idea, but I think skepticism is more common. More open-mindedness can improve the uniqueness and number of your ideas, more skepticism their chance of success and the rigor with which they are pursued.

        Or, to put it another way, there is an ROC curve for accepting ideas. People who are more skeptical are gaining specificity (less accept

    • by BWJones (18351) * on Friday October 03, 2008 @04:35PM (#25251291) Homepage Journal

      Argh, too many windows open on the desktop and I clicked submit accidentally before elaborating.

      My first concern is that this little "story" or press release has been either re-released or duplicated on various sources verbatim for weeks if not months and I've yet to see anything in the scientific literature about it. Publishing scientific progress in the popular press before peer review typically means bogus science to me.

      There certainly are photoreceptive skin cells in "lower" vertebrates and invertebrates that do transduce photosensitive information. However, any experiments I've seen in the literature or in popular press (or even weird Soviet 1960s "dermo optical" experiments that have attempted to evaluate "skin vision" in humans have failed or not accounted for temperature or other confounds.

    • It seems to hearken back to the evolutionist hypothesis that the eye is an evolved version of a light-sensitive cell (like, for example, melanin) that became more specialized through time. Skin cells don't seem to react to light in the visible or infrared spectrums -- rather just ultraviolet. It's definitely sensitive to reflected ultraviolet light which means the sense is there, the information simply isn't transferred quickly or coherently enough to the brain to register it. There's no lens to define w
      • by HTH NE1 (675604)

        There's no lens to define where the light is coming from when it's reflected to hit the skin

        Sweat can bead on the skin and act as a lens, though for evolution of sight it would probably have to be from an aquatic genesis to have become such an ubiquitous solution on Earth, perhaps a membrane protecting sensitive nerve cells becoming progressively thinner generation after generation, improving both in sensitivity and ability to focus as it becomes naturally selected for improved chances of survival both offensively and defensively.

    • by Kagura (843695)
      Have you heard of the mapping hardware that military divers can use by placing a special plate on their tongue to feel the map?
    • by mikael (484)

      I remember reading about this in one of those X-files type books in high school ("Strange Energies - Hidden Powers" and "Mysteries of the Undead").

      One of the claims was that people could tell which colour a sheet of paper was, even with their eyes closed. They said that blue or purple would "feel colder" than a colour such as red or orange. Since skin can feel infra-red radiation (heat), maybe this was possible.

      But they never tested it with a sheet of paper underneath a plastic cover, so the case remains un

    • As a theatre lighting designer, I'm not skeptical at all. In fact I have made use of this very phenomena.

      As part of a workshop for a contemporary dance show I set up a bunch of tightly focussed beams and pools of light and then had the performers navigate around the space with their eyes closed. In a suitably darkened space, you can feel when the light hits you. I'd say the sesitivity is more the infrared portion of the spectrum, but it does work.

    • by John Allsup (987)

      Whilst I'd agree that vision in the sense that we know it is unlikely to be replicated through the skin, the sensitivity of the skin and of the body in general allows a great deal of information from the body's environment to be perceived and, effectively 'seen'. For practical evidence you only need to look into areas such as internal martial arts, where such perception is often deliberately trained to some degree or other.

  • by overshoot (39700) on Friday October 03, 2008 @04:26PM (#25251191)
    I remember reports like this from the 60s.

    Of course, like any memories from the 60s ...

  • by glueball (232492) on Friday October 03, 2008 @04:33PM (#25251267)

    Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita who was at UW Madison has done something with vision being projected via electrical stimulation on the tongue. It is called sensory substitution.

    I've seen it first hand. It works.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_substitution [wikipedia.org]

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by lcampagn (842601)
      Sensory substitution is old (but cool) news, but from TFA it looks like this guy is claiming some inherent ability of the skin to detect light, rather than delivering an image-driven stimulus to the skin. If this is the case, then he's got a lot of work to do. Like stop running simulations and start checking premises.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Macman408 (1308925)

      ...and a project (also from the UW) involving several guys I know, called Visual Taste [uwinnovators.com] does that as well. There are pictures and videos, if the average slashdot reader can be troubled to follow the link...

    • "Vague gray shapes. Big dots. Blurry edges."

      "Can you see the door? Could you walk to the door?"

      "Yeah, I could, if you want me to trip over things and fall down."

      "That's a 5-by-5 display. Hold on," says Weiland, "I'm going to up your pixel count to 32 by 32."

      Ok, it lost me there. Anyone who can assert where a door is using 25 pixels, without prior knowledge, is obviously delusional. :-)

  • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Friday October 03, 2008 @04:39PM (#25251319) Homepage Journal

    "I'm just having a look around."

    Seriously, though:

    These theories may lead to future devices with practical applications. He says that such devices will end up having distinct advantages over conventional optics-based imaging. He expects these devices to have special sensors for detecting radiation at sea and in airports to indentify terrorist threats, innovative night vision devices or near-weightless mechanisms to steer spaceships in space.

    Did anybody else read this, "Homeland Security grants, DARPA grants, or NASA grants would all be just fine."

    • by HTH NE1 (675604)

      He expects these devices to have special sensors for detecting radiation at sea and in airports to identify terrorist threats, innovative night vision devices or near-weightless mechanisms to steer spaceships in space.

      Did anybody else read this, "Homeland Security grants, DARPA grants, or NASA grants would all be just fine."

      My spidey sense is tingling.

    • And did else anyone read this...

      "The lenses currently used for optics-based imaging have many problems. They only work within a limited range of electromagnetic radiation. Relatively, these are still costly devices greatly limited by weight and field of view. The imaging Professor Yaroslavsky has in mind has no lenses and he believes the devices can be adapted to any kind of radiation and wavelength. They could essentially work with a 360-degree field of view and their imaging capability will only be determined by computer power rather than the laws of light diffraction."

      ...and think of this? [memory-alpha.org]

      • And did anyone read this...and think of this? [memory-alpha.org]

        Sigh...Geordi's VISOR doesn't use his skin. They translate the electromagnetic spectrum to signals the brain can interpret directly.

        However, there's an earlier device [memory-alpha.org] that did use the skin though. It's not what the guy in the article is proposing, but it is like some other much more promising devices that translate information into tactile information, and the user can train himself/herself to use that information.

        Since you're a TNG fan (what self-respecting trekkie isn't), you should also note that Dr. M

  • The skin vision thing strikes me as highly unlikely in the "I would expect to have seen some evidence of it occurring, given the amount of time that people have had their eyes close, covered, or damaged" not the "It is a violation of $SOME_PHYSICAL_LAW as we know it" sense.

    Light sensitive cells are common enough in various organisms, including in configurations with rudimentary or nonexistent lens structures, so there is no reason to believe that humans having some light sensitive structures on their skin
    • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

      But generally, in all the work I've done (my graduate thesis is focusing on optical imaging with a lensless system) most of those kind of things, where you detect the magnitude of the wave-pattern, which in the far field is the Fourier transform, and then reconstruct the phase, it relies on having a relatively well-defined maximum region. I haven't looked at this yet, but I can't see this using techniques like those of X-Ray crystallography or SAR.

    • The skin vision thing strikes me as highly unlikely in the "I would expect to have seen some evidence of it occurring, given the amount of time that people have had their eyes close, covered, or damaged" not the "It is a violation of $SOME_PHYSICAL_LAW as we know it" sense.

      Are you aware of how REM [wikipedia.org] was discovered? Sometimes these things hide in plain view.

  • by gregbot9000 (1293772) <mckinleg@csusb.edu> on Friday October 03, 2008 @04:47PM (#25251381) Journal
    Seriously anyone who has had a 2nd degree sunburn will tell you the burns sensitivity to light is amazing. I had a redhead friend who had a burn and he could tell when light was on his back while walking under trees, and even if you were passing your arm over it.

    That's probably how the eyes started, as a sensitive patch of skin. Sight would be a different interpretation of pain, with color being different degrees of pain.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      More likely it would have been felt as something like heat, rather than pain. Intensity (temperature?) maps to brightness, not color. Color probably didn't come until something more eye-like had evolved - you wouldn't get color sensitivity from skin, only intensity/temperature. AFAIK color isn't as useful until after you have certain other things - light sensitivity first, to know if something's there. Then directionality, to know where. Then resolution, to know what is is. Color is an additional refinement

    • by evilviper (135110)

      sensitivity to light is amazing.

      No it isn't. Sun-burns make your sensitive to HEAT, not light. It just happens that sun-light is a common cause of your skin heating up... Of course your sun-burned skin ISN'T sensitive to indoor lighting. You might just as well have said that sun-burn makes your skin sensitive to WATER, since taking a hot shower is painful...

      Being able to feel heat is a long, LONG way from being able to perceive light. And if we did actually evolve that way, why can't we see infrared-sp

      • I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that infrared works different underwater. In fact, since WE don't see it, I am going to assume it doesn't work at all. See eyes probably evolved in water and if we don't have IR vision its probably because when the bulk work of eye generation was going on it wasn't a app worth having.
        • by evilviper (135110)

          Actually, you've got it backwards. Infrared (generally) penetrates further through water than any other wavelength.

          • Actually, you've got it backwards. Are you sure you aren't thinking of UV? I looked it up right now, and my little assumption about IR seems completely accurate. According to everything on Google water absorbs IR like dirt. In fact, in the IR pictures bodies of water looked just like the soil around them, thats how little the IR penetrated. A fish giving off IR would be view able for about 2 inches.
            • by ultranova (717540)

              A fish giving off IR would be view able for about 2 inches.

              Fishes, being cold-blooded animals, don't give significant amount of IR radiation. Mammals and birds are AFAIK the only things that could be detected easily with IR receptors, and since both are relative latecomers to the game of life, it seems likely that eyes simply haven't have time to evolve IR vision.

              It should be noted, however, that several insects have ultraviolet vision.

              • by evilviper (135110)

                Mammals and birds are AFAIK the only things that could be detected easily with IR receptors,

                You don't seem to know what infrared is. It's not thermal-vision (ala. Predator). It's just another wavelength of light.

                While it's peculiar that warm objects emit IR, that is most certainly not the only way to see an object. You'll still see the blocked and/or reflected IR signature of an object, hot or cold.

            • by evilviper (135110)

              Infrared is generally classified as being comprised of 3 different bands. One of the three is highly absorbed by water. The rest are not...

              I must also point out that humans don't see ultraviolet, either, so your this is an irrelevant argument, as your pet theory doesn't stand in either case.

              I have no desire to argue the point. Believe what you wish.

  • Back then it was called "demo-optical perception." It was complete crap that only worked if the person was wearing a poorly-designed blindfold. In a properly conducted test, this "power" disappeared entirely.

  • From the article: ...humans have an ability to see through their skin...human skin can "see" colors and shapes...controversial ancient instinct...skin vision could lead to new therapies for helping the blind regain sight and even read...future devices with practical applications...special sensors for detecting radiation at sea and in airports to indentify terrorist threats...360-degree field of view....

    Verdict: Science fiction.

  • by David Gerard (12369) <slashdot@davidg e r a r d . co.uk> on Friday October 03, 2008 @04:52PM (#25251441) Homepage

    The next stage after talking out your ass.

  • Isn't this a sort of redundant, since a technological advancement to create a device to see through skin cells would probably post date finding a way to replicate an actual human eye?
  • The skin already senses a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. It senses in the infrared what we interpret as heat. All the wiring is probably there for the skin to be able to deliver signals for things higher up in the electromagnetic spectrum but I am doubtful the tissue itself has the capability, even with some extreme re-working.
  • ...ever.

    There's no mechanism proposed, just some vague waffle about some organisms having IR sensitive skin and some nonsense about computer simulation. I wonder if there's even anything sensible behind this article or if it's a bogus article about some bogus science.

  • Yes I can see with my skin when it touches my wife (use can your imagination, not too much imagination).

  • Eh, eh! Mrs. Slocomb could read two pages of the Times at once if she opened it up and sat down on it!

  • I was hoping that this would be some form of practical followup work to an experiment that was attempted a few years back involving a camera and a grid of electrodes placed on the human back or tongue. A small computer which the test subjects had to carry around translated camera input into signals to the electrodes, and after a while the subjects reported that they had not only learned how to gain useful image information from the electrodes but genuinely visualised it, as though it were equal to input as
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 03, 2008 @06:05PM (#25251987)

    I recall a discussion about this in a cognitive science class I took about 3 years ago. Apparently, somebody developed an aparatus that was hooked to a person's back and used pins to provide a monochrome image of what a camera on the person's head was displaying. The interesting part was that they discovered that the visual part of the brain ended up being used to process the images. Eventually the person could see...sort of.

    Of course, this kind of trick won't work at all if the person is blind because of a brain problem rather than an eye problem. People who lose their sight overly early on in life will not necessarily develop their visual cortex enough for this type of technology to work. However, people who lose their eyes as adults or teens due to accidents will be fine.

  • Am I the only one... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by jflo (1151079)
    Am I the only one in thinking that the ONLY logicial solution to helping the blind is for scientists to develope a Visor like Geordi Laforge had in ST:TNG... I mean seriously, Star Trek has called out almost every other obvious advancement, why not this one?
  • by gravis777 (123605) on Friday October 03, 2008 @06:38PM (#25252243)

    Bear with me, I am thinking out loud here

    Very interesting theory. So, we all know that what we see, hear, whatever, is caused by different wavelengths. So, why is it that we can only see in one wavelength spectrum and hear in another? Hmmm. So, if there is a way to slightly shift those wavelengths that another sensory in the body can understand, I doubt you could "see", but, with proper training, I guess it would be possible to train that sense to make sense (no pun intended) of the data.

    Then again, I may be totally forgetting something, and this doesn't make any sense at all and I could just be spouting off BS.

    However, if this is possible, then this could be a different way of recording data from the world around us. I understand how the eye works, and I understand how a camera works. But, if we use something different than optics to record wavelengths in the visual spectrum, and use a computer program to interperate that data into something we could see.... Hmmm, its a longshot, but it sounds highly fascinating to me.

    • Electromagnetic wavelengths != Sound wavelengths. Sound is vibration in matter, EM is a wave without a medium (or just streams of photons, depending...)
    • I'll add to the other poster who replied.

      1- You need to know how the ear works and how the eye works. Completely different mechanisms for sensing.

      2- If you need more proof of the difference between EM waves (like light) and sound, consider their speeds. All EM radiation travels at C (basically). Sound travels at, well, the speed of sound. And that speed changes drastically depending on the transmitting medium.

      3- Also: I think it's clear that when people can 'see' light with their skin (as in the example of

      • by bar-agent (698856)

        5- I think a more promising route would be a form of echolocation, since we already know that it works for many other creatures.

        Including people, to some extent. Blind folks often tap their canes or make clicking noises, and by the sound they hear back, they can tell if there is some object nearby. I do that myself (though I can see). It's actually helped me navigate when the lights are out before.

        • by bar-agent (698856)

          Blind folks often tap their canes or make clicking noises, and by the sound they hear back, they can tell if there is some object nearby.

          BTW, if you are wondering, here's how I perceive the results: normally, people have a sense of space around them; an elevator, room, hallway, parking garage, outside, etc. feel differently. In a dark room, when I echolocate a bed-side table (for example), that area suddenly impinges a bit more on my awareness and I know there's something solid there. In terms of touch, it'

  • In Soviet Russia, pr0n watches you?
  • Seeing with our skin... just because it makes "Star Trek Sense (tm)" doesn't mean it's possible. There are a million attention whores in every field of science. Most of them are full of shit. It's just the nature of science, everything comes with a proof, and those proofs can get to your head, make you think you can do anything... well we're not quite there yet, and this is too much of a leap to be believable. This guy's chasing funding so he can be in the spotlight and pretend to work for the next 10-1

  • Long before I was born (which was quite some time ago), this was a favorite trick among self-professed "psychics". Thoroughly blindfolded, they could "read" a book they had "never seen before" with their fingertips.

    Early psychic debunkers (among them Houdini) openly and convincingly duplicated these feats through trickery. And, under controlled conditions, NONE of the claimants were EVER able to tell the difference between anything less than the presence of very bright light at close range and utter dark
  • by PPH (736903) on Friday October 03, 2008 @10:32PM (#25253599)
    ... as an excuse when I'm staring at some gal's tits while talking to her. Hey, they were staring at me first!
  • Your arch-nemesis has escaped Arkham Asylum! No, not Joker or Two-Face. It's the Ten-Eyed Man [wikipedia.org]! Someone forgot to lock up his hands [seanbaby.com]!

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