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Technology Brings Hope for Normalcy to the Visually Impaired

September 2, 2014

Predicting that more than 6 million Americans over the age of 40 will be suffering from low vision or blindness by 2030, double that of 2004, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) attributes the rise to the chronic diseases of a rapidly aging population. Moreover, it notes that vision loss is currently among the top 10 disabilities in the U.S., most notably as one of the most prevalent among children.

Observing these alarming trends, the University of Cincinnati created a device they dubbed an Enactive Torch, a handheld tool that allows the visually impaired to judge the width of narrow passages as if they could actually see the pathways. Using infra-red sensors, the torch vibrates through an attached wristband when it detects an object, permitting the user to easily navigate obstacles.

Luis Favela, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, presented his research “Augmenting the Sensory Judgment Abilities of the Visually Impaired” recently at the American Psychological Association’s (APA) annual convention in Washington, D.C., in which he said:

“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,” Favela says.

Favela’s experiment involved 27 undergraduate students with normal or corrected-to-normal vision and no prior experience with mobility assistance devices. Their task was to judge their ability to navigate a passage without resorting to a shift in their normal posture. Each was tested in three ways: with their own vision; using a cane while blindfolded; and employing the Enactive Torch while blindfolded. The goal was to make comparative judgments using vision with those using only touch.

Incredibly, Favela found that judgments from all three types of perception were equally accurate: “When you compare the participants’ judgments with vision, cane and Enactive Torch, there was not a significant difference, meaning that they made the same judgments. The three modalities are functionally equivalent. People can carry out actions just about to the same degree whether they’re using their vision or their sense of touch.”

He’s already planning to expand his experiments to require more complex tasks, such as stepping over an obstacle or climbing stairs, but is confident that similar tools that employ touch will have a significant impact on the lives of the visually impaired.

His subjects’ ability to quickly adapt to the Enactive Torch gives many who are suddenly required to navigate a new world with impaired vision, such as war veterans, hope for a more rapid integration. It is also an enormous help to those who do not want to draw attention to themselves, especially young people, with a cane, for example.

As Favela says: “If the future version of the Enactive Torch is smaller and more compact, kids who use it wouldn’t stand out from the crowd, they might feel like they blend in more.”

Technology, as we all know, is rapidly advancing, and plays a huge role in the lives of the visually impaired. In a recent post, we discussed the CATRA system, developed by the Camera Culture Media Lab at MIT, an attachment that snaps on to the front of an iPhone and then uses the screen output to monitor and test for cataracts in patients’ eyes when they look into the device. The specialized software used is reported to provide a diagnosis within minutes and requires no training in order to use.

The future is looking brighter – and clearer, with technology that will help us to maintain our visual health and enjoy better lives when it falters.

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