System to aid the blind nominated for Descartes Prize
“Being nominated for the Descartes Prize is very gratifying; it’s an important recognition of our work,” says Teresa Gutierrez, coordinator of a short-listed project competing for the Descartes Prize for outstanding scientific work by a multinational team of researchers.
Involving six partners from four European countries, the IST GRAB project developed a system to allow blind and visually impaired people to access three-dimensional computer graphics through the senses of touch and hearing. “We always saw the potential of this technology and we’re pleased that others see it as well,” says Gutierrez, a researcher at Fundación Labein in Spain.
The GRAB project - which is among 14 projects competing for the European Commission’s 1.15 million euro Descartes Research Prize, the winners of which will be announced in London on December 2 – forms part of ongoing research by Labein and the other project partners into haptic and audio technologies to aid people who are visually impaired. The GRAB system allows users to feel the geometric features of 3D graphics through a force-feedback haptic interface connected to two articulated arms in which users place their index finger or thumb of each hand. Combined with audio information, the system allows users to recognise the geometric features of virtual objects, and calculate distances and spatial relationships between them.
“There are a wide variety of applications for this technology, not just for the visually impaired but also for medical and industrial training in virtual environments,” Gutierrez explains. “In the project we developed three application scenarios to test the system.”
A 3D city map allowed visually-impaired users to recognise streets and plan routes in advance; a chart data explorer allowed them to ‘feel’ the information contained in graphs; and an adventure game let them explore a virtual building.
“The game was particularly liked by trial users who to date have largely been confined to non-interactive static games, while the chart explorer allows visually-impaired people to visualise in their minds the performance of say a company on the stock market,” the coordinator says. “Overall the reactions were very positive; almost everyone noted that it allows them to do things they couldn’t do before.”
Nonetheless, Gutierrez says that the technology needs to be refined further and the cost of the system brought down before a commercial product can be released. With that goal in mind some of the project partners have set up a network of excellence to continue their research.
Tara Morris | alfa
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