Vision Rehabilitation: Digital Haptics For The Visually Impaired
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 2.2 billion people in our world experience vision impairment. As a result, neuroscientists are working at developing ways for the visually impaired to navigate the world around them.
At the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS), researchers presented new devices that use digital haptics and sound technology to help the vision-impaired, specifically with regards to vision rehabilitation. These novel devices combine research, modeling, and neuroimaging methods to develop more accessible and customized technologies.
Ruxandra Tivador, from the University of Bern, presented new research showing how feedback from digital haptics, which uses the sense of touch combined with motion, allows for the visually impaired to easily learn about new environments. Tivadors says, "Really, we study the ways in which people can see better using information from other senses. In neuroscience, this means looking at how the brain constructs visual images and trying to help the brain by augmenting or supplementing the information that it uses to construct these images. I think that merely the fact that we can do this is absolutely fascinating, and very promising for rehabilitation."
Teaching a visually impaired person how to navigate a new space is a long and slow process. Tivadar is working towards a type of future where mobile phones with digital haptic feedback allow the visually impaired to learn about new spaces instantly. In their research, Tividar’s team used digital haptics to represent the layout of an apartment in 2-D. In the study, blindfolded participants learned the layout by exploring a digital haptic version of the layout. After that, participants had to actually navigate the real, physical environment. Tivadar states that the participants learned the layouts after only about 45 minutes of training. The results from the study also suggest that those participants who trained for harder navigation succeeded better than participants who were only trained on easier trajectories. Tivadar states, “These findings imply that for really simple layouts, people need minimal training to succeed at imagining a space in their minds and then physically navigating it."
During the study, researchers filmed the hands of 25 participants while the participants were using a haptic tablet for 8-10 minutes each. Using a neural network to analyze the videos, Tivadar’s team used an algorithm that tracked the movement of a single finger on the tablet. This allowed the team to better understand how participants interact with haptics and provided valuable information on future applications of the technology.
The findings from this study, along with other findings presented at the CNS symposium, are promising to the field of vision rehabilitation. They not only use the latest neuroscience technologies, but also aim to find low-cost and highly accessible solutions to vision impairment.