Technology.am (Sept. 11, 2009) — Dr. Orly Lahav of Tel Aviv University’s School of Education and Porter School for Environmental Studies has invented a new software tool to help the blind navigate through unfamiliar places.
Dr. Lahav’s software takes physical information from our world and digitizes it for transfer to a computer, with which the user interacts using a joystick, a 3-D haptic device.
People can feel tension beneath their fingertips as a physical sensation through the joystick as they navigate around a virtual environment which they cannot see, only feel: the joystick stiffens when the user meets a virtual wall or barrier.
The software can also be programmed to emit sounds — a cappuccino machine firing up in a virtual café, or phones ringing when the explorer walks by a reception desk.
Exploring 3D virtual worlds based on maps of real-world environments, the blind are able to “feel out” streets, sidewalks and hallways with the joystick as they move the cursor like a white cane on the computer screen that they will never see.
Before going out alone, the new solution gives them the control, confidence and ability to explore new streets making unknown spaces familiar. It allows people who can’t see to make mental maps in their mind.
A touchy-feely virtual white stick- “This tool lets the blind ‘touch’ and ‘hear’ virtual objects and deepens their sense of space, distance and perspective,” says Dr. Lahav.
“They can ‘feel’ intersections, buildings, paths, and obstacles with the joystick, and even navigate inside a shopping mall or a museum like the Louvre in a virtual environment before they go out to explore on their own.”
The tool transmits textures to the fingers and can distinguish among surfaces like tiled floors, asphalt, sidewalks and grass. In theory, any unknown space, indoors or out, can be virtually pre-explored, says Dr. Lahav. The territory just needs to be mapped first ― and with existing applications like GIS (geography information system), the information is already there.
The tool, called the BlindAid, was recently unveiled at the “Virtual Rehabilitation 2009 International Conference,” where Dr. Lahav demonstrated case studies of people using the tool at the Carroll Center for the Blind, a rehabilitation center in Newton, Massachusetts.