CES 2013: The blind see, the deaf hear, the mute can be heard

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

We often think of technology as something that makes us more than human. Marshall McLuhan, the freaky philosopher of television and other 20th-century developments, called media the “extensions of man.” The suggestion is that tech accelerates our pace, furthers our reach, amplifies our voice.

It also threatens to turn humankind into a horrifying super-race of cyborgs. The “extended” us, goes the evergreen argument, is, paradoxically, far more distractible/obese/stupid than we were when we were just plain flesh and blood with a stone tool and maybe a cornhusk doll.

That’s frightening. And interesting. Which is why books about the hideous consequences of technology will not stop. They themselves are a technology designed to help us live more meaningfully with machines.

But what about technology designed merely to bring us up to par, to give standard human capabilities to those who lack them? I’m thinking of devices designed to help the mute talk, the deaf hear and the blind see.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which ends Friday, we’ve seen our share of monster TVs and oversize superphones. But we’ve also seen eye-tracking, 3-D headphones and voice technology that can read anything you write in your voice. All this stuff was originally developed for the disabled, and creating it ended up alighting on whole new models of how our senses work.

The eye, according to the latest research, is better thought of as an antenna than a camera. It’s a sensor—liquidy, squishy, hypersensitive. The latest bionic eye, working off this model, allows the blind to see in grayscale in 576 pixels.

Hearing, too, is being rethought. The new 3-D headphones, first made for the hearing-impaired, have necessitated the first headphone patent since in the 1920s. They don’t divide sound into stereo—they wrap it around the head where different frequencies hit the brain from a spectrum of angles.

And finally, the voice. In 2006, the movie critic Roger Ebert lost his voice box to thyroid cancer. But recordings of his voice were subsequently digitized and turned into all possible English sounds. He can now type words and have them said aloud—in his own voice.

Why couldn’t we all do this? The Ebert technology has been extended by some entrepreneurs to handily turn text into speech—anyone’s speech. Soon you’ll be able to have a book or article read to you by almost anyone you choose.

That doesn’t sound so frightening. It sounds exciting—and, in the right situations, potentially miraculous.

More from CES: The smart watch, tablet batteries, and more:

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