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.
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 mechanical device. Her hope is that the blind will be able to explore the virtual environment of a new neighbourhood in the comfort of their homes before venturing out into the real world.
"This tool lets the blind 'touch' and 'hear' virtual objects and deepens their sense of space, distance and perspective", stated 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, according to 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 centre in Newton, Massachusetts. There, a partially blind woman first explored the virtual environment of the centre - as well as the campus and 10 other sites, including a four-story building. After just three or four sessions, the woman was able to effectively navigate and explore real-world target sites wearing a blindfold.
The virtual system becomes a computerized "white cane" for the blind, according to Dr. Lahav. "They get feedback from the device that lets them build a cognitive map, which they later apply in the real world. It's like a high-tech walking cane", she stated. "Our tool lets people 'see' their environment in advance so they can walk in it for real at a later time."
Today the blind and visually impaired are very limited in their movements, which necessarily influences their quality of life. This solution could help them find new options, like closer routes from train or bus stations to the safety of home. "Ultimately, it helps the blind determine their own paths and gives them the ability to take control of their lives", stated Dr. Lahav, who first began this research at Tel Aviv University, under Prof. David Mioduser, where she now works. She then further developed it with her MIT colleagues Dr. Mandayam Srinivasan and Dr. David W. Schloerb.
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (TAU) supports Israel's leading and most comprehensive centre of higher learning. In independent rankings, TAU's innovations and discoveries are cited more often by the global scientific community than all but 20 other universities worldwide. Internationally recognized for the scope and groundbreaking nature of its research programmes, Tel Aviv University consistently produces work with profound implications for the future.