Researchers in MIT's Touch Lab have developed BlindAid, a system that helps the visually impaired "feel" their way around a virtual model of a room or building so they can familiarize themselves with an environment before entering it.
The BlindAid system builds on a device called the Phantom, developed at MIT in the early 1990s and built for production by SensAble Technologies. Phantom is effectively a robotic arm that the user grasps like a stylus which can create the sensation of touch by exerting small, precisely controlled force on the user's fingers.
Flash forward to BlindAid. The BlindAid stylus functions like a blind person's cane, allowing the user to "feel" virtual floors, walls, doors and other objects. The stylus is hooked up to a computer programmed with a three-dimensional map of the room. When a virtual obstacle is encountered, the stylus produces force against the user's hand.
Mandayam Srinivasan, the Touch Lab's director, is working with the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass., to develop and test the device. It's been tested on 10 visually impaired subjects at the Carroll Center.
One of the toughest challenges for the visually impaired is entering an unfamiliar environment without guidance. According to preliminary results, participants had an easier time navigating around an actual room if they could preview a virtual model of it.
Environments best suited for the device include public transportation lines and public spaces such as museums or train stations.
The device does require a bit of training, however. To achieve success, the user must have "a well-developed sense of space."
BlindAid can also help mobility instructors evaluate feedback for how successfully the user is exploring their environment and where trouble spots persist.
Former postdoctoral associate Orly Lahav and research scientist David Schloerb were behind much of the device's development.