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Hands on learning for the visually impaired

European researchers have made it easy for software developers to build educational tools that let pupils collaborate to see, hear – and now also feel – what is on the computer screen.

When you think of the solar system you probably picture a textbook diagram: nine planets, different sizes and colours, all circling the bright yellow sun. But how can a visually impaired child take in this information? How can they grasp how the solar system works?

European researchers have developed a computer program that lets sighted and visually impaired pupils explore space together. Using a special device similar to a robotic arm, a visually impaired child can move around the solar system and hear about the planets.

Sighted children can guide their visually impaired partners. As they move the mouse, the pressure and resistance in the robot arm gently nudges the visually impaired user in the right direction.

Students colloborate in hands on learning the Micole way.

The space explorer is just one of many applications developed by the EU-funded MICOLE project which is bringing multi-modal interfaces into the classroom.

The software is one of the first releases of multi-modal educational computer programs. It allows sighted children and the visually impaired to collaborate, helping to remove some of the barriers that the latter group faces every day in mainstream education.

Multi-modal computing is on the rise. Soon a third sense could be added to the sight and sound that computers currently use as their mode of output. Haptic devices, such as the robot arm, enable users to control computers as if they were using a mouse. Such devices also provide output – of movement, pressures or even raised bumps to deliver information to the user via the sense of touch.

This output is exploited in another MICOLE application. Current software drawing software allows pupils to create pictures, but the lines are in relief.

Using the haptic device, they can actually feel the picture. As they move a virtual stylus over the picture on the screen the pupils can sense the raised lines through the device communicated to their fingertips.

Collaborative design

“These applications have been very welcomed in our test classrooms,” says project coordinator Roope Raisamo. “It has been wonderful to see visually impaired and sighted children really working together and sharing the same experiences and opportunities.

“Our aim was to allow blind people to create, manipulate and share information using hearing and touch to replace use of vision, and to work with other blind and sighted people. We want to see visually impaired people take a full role in society and work at an equal level with sighted people.”

Before MICOLE, very little was known about how multi-modality could be used when blind people work alongside those with full sight. But through its user-centred approach – lots of observation, focus groups, consultation and field-testing – the MICOLE partners have greatly added to our understanding about such collaborative work.

“Adding the sense of touch to information and communication technology is just getting to the point where it can be commercialised,” Raisamo continues. “The first people to benefit are people with disabilities, especially people who are blind or have visual impairment. The more senses you can use, the more multi-modal your computer interface, the more inclusive the technology can be.”

Much of the knowledge that the team has built up during the project's three years have been incorporated into guidelines for software developers on how to develop successful applications for collaborative learning.

Raisamo believes the project has increased the potential for successful commercialisation of multi-modal software in all fields.

A feeling for the future

MICOLE’s researchers have done far more than publish theoretical documents and produce a few prototype applications. Their main output comes in the form of the ‘MICOLE architecture’ and an accompanying software development toolkit. The architecture is like a high level programming language. It provides the virtual environment – all the processes and mechanisms for software applications to function in a multi-modal fashion.

It is designed so that software developers can quickly build new multi-modal applications for the visually impaired and can be used for applications in widespread disciplines including medicine, education or ‘edutainment’.

“We've made it an open source architecture to encourage more people to access it, spread it, and adapt it for their own requirements without worrying about licenses or intellectual property,” says Raisamo.

So far 14 organisations from outside the project have downloaded the architecture and toolkit files in the first six months since these were made available for download on the project's website.

“This is encouraging,” Raisamo says. “We know that several groups are working on new applications and we hope that the market will take off soon.”

Reachin Technology, a key MICOLE partner and a distributor of the haptic robot device, could be one of the first to sell multi-modal software based on MICOLE’s research.

Fully functional

Multi-modal interfaces can support people with many disabilities because if one of the modalities is missing, the system remains usable.

“If multi-modal applications are used widely and match the needs of different users, they could narrow the gap between sighted and impaired children,” says Raisamo.

MICOLE, which received funding from the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for research, ended in August 2007. However, the partners involved continue to push research and development in the field.

Raisamo's team is currently working with local schools to develop new applications based on the architecture – one that explores physical phenomena, another the natural sciences.

Ahmed ElAmin | alfa
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