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Vision Health

“Seeing'” Through Virtual Touch

Surprising results from University of Cincinnati research could lead to new ways to help the visually impaired better navigate everyday life. Visual impairment comes in many forms, and it’s on the rise in America. The University of Cincinnati experiment aimed at this diverse and growing population could spark development of advanced tools to help all the aging baby boomers, injured veterans, diabetics, and white-cane-wielding pedestrians navigate the blurred edges of everyday life.

A release from the university explains that these tools could be based on a device called the Enactive Torch, which looks like a combination of a TV remote control and Captain Kirk’s weapon of choice. However, it can do much greater things than change channels or stun aliens.

Luis Favela, a graduate student in philosophy and psychology, has found the torch enables the visually impaired to judge their ability to comfortably pass through narrow passages, such as an open door or busy sidewalk, as well as if they were actually seeing such pathways themselves. Favela presented his research “Augmenting the Sensory Judgment Abilities of the Visually Impaired” at the American Psychological Association’s (APA) annual convention, held August 7-10 2014 in Washington, D.C.

The handheld torch uses infra-red sensors to “see” objects in front of it. When the torch detects an object, it emits a vibration – similar to a cellphone alert – through an attached wristband. The gentle buzz increases in intensity as the torch nears the object, letting the user make judgments about where to move based on a virtual touch.

The release quotes Favela as saying, “Results of this experiment point in the direction of different kinds of tools or sensory augmentation devices that could help people who have visual impairment or other sorts of perceptual deficiencies. This could start a research program that could help people like that.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that more than 6 million Americans age 40 and older will be affected by blindness or low vision by 2030 – double the number from 2004 – due to diabetes or other chronic diseases and the rapidly aging population. The CDC also notes that vision loss is among the top 10 causes of disability in the U.S., and vision impairment is one of the most prevalent disabilities in children.

In Favela’s experiment, 27 undergraduate students with normal or corrected-to-normal vision and no prior experience with mobility assistance devices were asked to make perceptual judgments about their ability to pass through an opening a few feet in front of them without needing to shift their normal posture. Favela tested participants’ judgments in three ways: using only their vision, using a cane while blindfolded and using the Enactive Torch while blindfolded. The idea was to compare judgments made with vision against those made by touch.

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