Coming Soon to a Brain Near You Page 2

No matter how crisp your display is or how many speakers you have in your home theater, you can receive their information through your eyes and ears only. How about "playback systems" that bypass physical sight and hearing? Consider two recent Sony patents (#6,536,440 and #6,729,337) titled "Method and System for Generating Sensory Data onto the Human Neural Cortex" and a patent application (#20040267118) titled "Scanning Method for Applying Ultrasonic Acoustic Data to the Human Neural Cortex." They describe a noninvasive way to create sensory perceptions across the neural cortex. For example, "imagery captured from a video camera is converted into neural timing difference data" and scanned across the brain as "pulsed ultrasonic signals that modify the firing rate of the neural tissue." In this manner, "sensory experiences arise from the differences in neural firing times." (If you think I'm kidding, check out the patent numbers at www.uspto.gov or freepatentsonline.com.)

That all seems simple enough, but I suspect the technology is fabulously complex. If it comes to market at all, the first implementations will probably be relatively crude. Still, the ability to convey A/V data directly to the brain would be impressive.

Over time, it could even make today's displays and speakers obsolete. How soon? Sony's not telling. But a patent is good for only 20 years after the issuing date. Sony would have wasted its research if it patented the idea more than 20 years before it hoped to market it. So, possibly, sometime before 2026, you might have a mind-blowing experience.

Just imagine - if neural delivery really works, you could watch movies and listen to surround sound in a completely dark and silent room. Instead of looking for your glasses and cranking up the treble because your vision and hearing aren't what they used to be, you could experience movies with 20/20 vision and enjoy music with the hearing of a 19-year-old again. More profoundly, the closed perceptual doors of the world would open for the blind and the deaf.

As wonderful as eyes and ears are, they're also bottlenecks. The retina collects the equivalent of about 800 million bits per second (Mbps), but the optic nerve transmits only about 8 Mbps. A neural A/V system might be able to deliver the full whammy to the brain. And it might even provide entirely new ways to experience music and movies. With appropriate brain massaging, you could smell the sounds of U2 or taste the images of The Lord of the Rings.

Your expensive plasma TV would be a piece of junk, along with your decorator-approved home theater speakers. Neural delivery would render movie theaters obsolete as well. Even the biggest silver screen would pale in comparison to the images in your mind. Bad news for movie theater owners. I suppose people could still sit together nostalgically in Brain-o-Matic theaters for a communal experience. But if you didn't want to "watch" the movie, you'd have to bring along a tinfoil hat.

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