Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Enabling the blind to find their way

“Eyes on the future” is the mantra of the ‘World Sight Day’ held this month to raise awareness of blindness and vision impairment. New technologies, developed by European researchers offering the visually impaired greater independence, live up to this vision.

Many of the most innovative systems have been created by a consortium of companies and research institutes working in the EU-funded ENABLED project.

The project has led to 17 prototype devices and software platforms being developed to help the visually impaired, two of which have been patented.

Guide dogs, canes, Braille and screen readers that turn digital text into spoken audio all help to improve the lives of the blind or severely visually impaired, but none of these tools can make up for having a friend or relative accompany a blind person around and assist them in their daily life. However, a human helper is not always available.

“Blind people often have to rely on others to do things that we do naturally… and that restricts their independence,” explains Wai Yu, the project’s coordinator and a researcher at the Virtual Engineering Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast.

Activities that the sighted take for granted, such as going for a walk in the park or trying out a new restaurant, becomes an odyssey for the visually impaired, particularly when they do not already know the route by heart.

A guide dog can help them avoid dangers in the street, be it a curb or a lamppost, but it cannot show them a new route. People can be asked for directions, but following them is another matter entirely when you cannot read street signs or see landmarks.

Bridging the information gap

Those barriers have typically prevented the visually impaired from exploring the world around them on their own, but now, with the new technologies, they can surmount some of these barriers.

“Our goal was to give blind people more independence by helping to bridge the information gap with the sighted,” Yu says.

To achieve that, the project partners worked in two broad areas. On the one hand, they developed software applications with tactile, haptic and audio feedback devices to help visually impaired people feel and hear digital maps of where they want to go. On the other hand, they created new haptic and tactile devices to guide them when they are out in the street.

Maps you can feel

One of the patented prototypes, called VITAL, allows users to access a tactile map of an area. Using a device akin to a computer mouse they can move a cursor around the map and small pins will create shapes under the palm of their hand.

The device could produce the sensation of a square block to define a building, or form into different icons to depict different shops and services – an ‘H’ for a hospital, for example.

“Braille readers and audio readers let blind people read or hear text from computers and the internet, but until now there has been no easy or practical way to portray graphical information,” Yu says. “We chose to work with maps because they are particularly useful for visually impaired people.”

Having obtained a ‘mental image’ of the map from the computer, users can then take the route information with them when they venture outside. For that purpose, the project partners used a commercially available navigation aid called the Trekker, which uses GPS to guide users as they walk around, much like a navigation system in a car.

An electronic guide

However, the Trekker gives only spoken directions, something that can be disconcerting for blind people, who may not want to draw attention to themselves. The device can often be hard to hear in noisy, city environments.

The ENABLED team therefore developed prototypes to provide directions through tactile and haptic feedback, rather than via audio alone.

One patented device developed by the project team, the VIFLEX, looks similar to a TV remote control with a movable plate at the front. The user rests his thumb on the plate, which tilts in eight directions to guide users based on the directions given by the Trekker.

“It is more discreet and natural than following audio commands,” Yu says.

The aim of the ENABLED team’s research is not to replace tried and tested aids for the blind, such as canes and guide dogs, but to complement them with new technologies that can improve the independence and autonomy of the visually impaired.

For the visually impaired worldwide, such technologies should start to become a reality over the coming years as the applications developed by the ENABLED team make their way into commercial products.

Media notes:

ENABLED received funding from the ICT strand of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for research.

World Sight Day 2008, on 9 October, is an initiative of the Vision 2020 organisation coordinated by the World Health Organisation.

This feature can be republished without charge provided ICT Results is acknowledged as the source at the top or the bottom of the story. You must request permission before you use any of the photographs on the site. If you do republish, we would be grateful if you could let us know so as to help us provide you with a better service. If you want further information on any of the projects cited in this story please contact us at

Christian Nielsen | alfa
Further information:

Further reports about: ENABLED ICT World Sight Day’ blindness new technologies vision impairment

More articles from Health and Medicine:

nachricht Advanced analysis of brain structure shape may track progression to Alzheimer's disease
26.10.2016 | Massachusetts General Hospital

nachricht Indian roadside refuse fires produce toxic rainbow
26.10.2016 | Duke University

All articles from Health and Medicine >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>