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Fast, accurate reaching movements with a visual-to-auditory sensory substitution device


Purpose: Visual sensory substitution devices (SSDs) use sound or touch to convey information that is normally perceived by vision. The primary focus of prior research using SSDs was the perceptual components of learning to use SSDs and their neural correlates. However, sensorimotor integration is critical in the effort to make SSDs relevant for everyday tasks, like grabbing a cup of coffee efficiently. The purpose of this study was to test the use of a novel visual-to-auditory SSD to guide a fast reaching movement. Methods: Using sound, the SSD device relays location, shape and color information. Participants were asked to make fast reaching movements to targets presented by the SSD. Results: After only a short practice session, blindfolded sighted participants performed fast and accurate movements to presented targets, which did not differ significantly from movements performed with visual feedback in terms of movement time, peak speed, and path length. A small but significant difference was found between the endpoint accuracy of movements under the two feedback conditions; remarkably, in both cases the average error was smaller than 0.5 cm. Conclusions: Our findings combine with previous brain-imaging studies to support a theory of a modality-independent representation of spatial information. Task-specificity, rather than modality-specificity, of brain functions is crucially important for the rehabilitative use of SSDs in the blind and the visually impaired. We present the first direct comparison between movement trajectories performed with an SSD and ones performed under visual guidance. The accuracy level reached in this study demonstrates the potential applicability of using the visual-to-auditory SSD for performance of daily tasks which require fast, accurate reaching movements, and indicates a potential for rehabilitative use of the device.