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Tool lets blind people ‘touch’ graphics

Mechanical arms

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A new type of computer interface is to enable blind people to feel and hear 3D graphic environments.

The technology is being developed as part of an EU funded research project called GRAB (Computer Graphics Access for Blind people), and its end goal is to create workspaces that will let blind and visually impaired people navigate virtual 3D environments. The technology could, eventually, allow users to "feel" a virtual street map or pie chart or play a 3D game -- all examples of tools already developed as part of the project.

Two of the six partner organisations that developed the breakthrough device are based in Ireland. The National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) is a user organisation that has been testing the software and hardware components.

"The GRAB project is very exciting," said John Wood of the NCBI. "One of the most practical uses which we have been testing is with charts and graphs. These are not usually accessible to blind or visually impaired people. Spreadsheet information can now be translated into 3D, so a user can feel a pie-chart or graph."

Dublin-based Haptica, meanwhile, is a GRAB project exploitation partner that is currently examining the commercial aspects of the project. A spokesperson for the company told ElectricNews.Net that the device is in its prototype phase and it is not known when it will be commercially available. The product may first be sold to public authorities so that it can be placed at people's disposal in libraries and other public venues.

The device itself, including the software it runs on, is called the Haptic & Audio Virtual Environment (HAVE) and it consists of two mechanical arms that are attached to the user's fingers on each hand over a large flat surface such as a desktop.

Here's how the arms work: a shape or object is loaded onto a computer which relays this information to the HAVE arms so that they are aware of the dimensions of the virtual object. If the object were a one-foot cube, for example, the user would only be able to move his fingers to the edges of the invisible cube, with the HAVE arms preventing any further movement.

Importantly, elastic material like cotton or rubber can be simulated, with the HAVE arms offering more resistance as the virtual object is compressed. Even textures and bumps, or characteristics like stickiness and smoothness, can be simulated using the technology. If the user has failed to explore all of the virtual workspace, the interface will take control and guide them towards any remaining surfaces or objects.

Depending on the application, users can receive audio feedback to provide information about virtual objects, and information about their actual position within the environment. The technology can be controlled using verbal and keyboard commands and can zoom in and out to explore objects whose size is too big or small.

The EU-funded €1.38 million GRAB project has brought together researchers and experts from Ireland, Spain, UK, Italy and Germany. It is thought that the technology can be used for applications in disparate fields such as architecture, art, aeronautics and medicine.

© ENN

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