The James J. Gibson Connection

By Bill Angelos

Chapter 6: A Revolution Revisited

The thing about Revolutions that people tend to forget is that they don’t generally happen overnight – or in a week or month or a year. Most of us now agree that the world is round – but consider how long that took for the people inhabiting the world to get the news when there was no CNN… or TV, for that matter; or radios or telephones or anything more than word of mouth.

Today, even with all of those technologies and a host of others providing us with what some consider too much – even a glut – of information, most of us still don’t know that there’s a Revolution going on regarding our understanding of what is actually taking place during our percepetion of the world we live in every moment of every day of our lives. And there’s reason to believe that many of us prefer to leave it that way, even though our ignorance may be causing great harm. More about that later.

But such was not the case with Paul Bach-y-Rita and his little band of genius colleagues who came together – almost organically – to prove that what Paul envisioned more than 40 years ago in 1966 when he read James J. Gibson’s “The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems” could be realized in a prosthetic device that might help thousands, perhaps millions of people.

However, what Paul and his colleagues didn’t realize was that they too were leaders in a Revolution that was - and still is defining itself. Because of this, the manner in which they described what they were doing had it’s own inherent glitches – for they too were standing on the cusp of the Perception Revolution.

Here are three of Paul’s colleagues attempting to explain what, in a real sense, they weren’t really capable of explaining – yet. Such are the vagaries of being leaders in a Revolution.

First, Kurt Kaczmareck whose doctorate in Biomedical Engineering helped Paul Bach-y-Rita fashion the prototype iteration of what was initially called the Tongue Display Unit (TDU). It was the size of a toaster when I first saw it in 2003. But what Paul had originally envisioned 3 years after reading Gibson's book was something quite larger than a toaster:

You’ve already met this gentleman before in an earlier Chapter. It was his “Ahah Moment" which took place while the bus he was riding on slipped on a patch of ice that allowed him to come up with the concept for the Balance device:

And finally, Yuri Danilov –- With a doctorate in Physiology from the famed Pavlov Institute of Physiology, Russian Academy of Science, in Russia. His “confession” sets the stage for where things were in 2003. By the way, the “she” he is referring to in this video is our friend Cheryl Schiltz:

The Revolution set in motion by Gibson's "The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems" was not just affecting our little band of geniuses. In fact, it caused ripples of confusion that are being felt even today. After all it was challenging a perspective that the great Rene Descartes himself had proposed 400 years before -- a perspective that had remained relatively unquestioned until Gibson.

Gibson was made aware of this and five or six years after publishing his book in '66, he wrote a paper whose 10 points would shine a light of clarity on the confusion; and specifically on the glitches that Paul and his colleagues had mistakenly articulated. More about that in the next Chapter which takes it title from the title of Gibson's paper: “Note on the Difference Between a Sensory Modality and a Perceptual System.”

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