Feeling the way

Robotic device developed in MIT’s Touch Lab can help visually impaired people navigate around a virtual model of a real building.

For many people, it has become routine to go online to check out a map before traveling to a new place. But for blind people, Google maps and other visual mapping applications are of little use. Now, a unique device developed at MIT could give the visually impaired the same kind of benefit that sighted people get from online maps.

The BlindAid system, developed in MIT’s Touch Lab, allows blind people to “feel” their way around a virtual model of a room or building, familiarizing themselves with it before going there.

Mandayam Srinivasan, director of the Touch Lab and affiliated with the Research Laboratory of Electronics and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working with the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass., to develop and test the device. Preliminary results show that when blind people have the chance to preview a virtual model of a room, they have an easier time navigating their way around the actual room later on.

That advantage could be invaluable for the visually impaired, says Joseph Kolb, a mobility instructor at the Carroll Center. He notes that one of the toughest challenges a visually impaired person faces is entering an unfamiliar environment with no human or dog to offer guidance.

“You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what’s around you, and there may or may not be people around to help you,” he says.

A cane for virtual navigation

The BlindAid system builds on a device called the Phantom, developed at MIT in the early 1990s and commercialized by SensAble Technologies. Phantom consists of a robotic arm that the user grasps as if holding a stylus. The stylus can create the sensation of touch by exerting a small, precisely controlled force on the fingers of the user.

The BlindAid stylus functions much like a blind person’s cane, allowing the user to feel virtual floors, walls, doors and other objects. The stylus is connected to a computer programmed with a three-dimensional map of the room. Whenever a virtual obstacle is encountered, the computer directs the stylus to produce a force against the user’s hand, mimicking the reaction force from a real obstacle.

Srinivasan’s team has tested the device in about 10 visually impaired subjects at the Carroll Center, a non-profit agency that offers education, training and rehabilitation programs to about 2,000 visually impaired people per year.

To successfully use such a system, the visually impaired person must have a well-developed sense of space, says Kolb. For those people, “this offers the prospect of being able to preview an environment and have a sense of what’s in the environment, the shape of it, and where landmarks are located,” he says.

During the testing, Kolb realized that BlindAid could also help mobility instructors evaluate the exploration strategies the subject is using — whether he or she has an organized approach or tends to get stuck in a certain area.

Orly Lahav, a former postdoctoral associate in the Touch Lab, and David Schloerb, a research scientist in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, did much of the work to develop BlindAid. Lahav presented the work at the Virtual Rehabilitation 2009 International Conference in Israel this summer.

Once Srinivasan obtains additional funding, he hopes to incorporate the BlindAid system into the Carroll Center’s training program, which will yield user feedback that should help him refine the system for commercial production. In the long term, he believes BlindAid could be used to help blind people not only preview public spaces such as train stations, but also plan and travel by public transportation using virtual route maps that they can download and interact with through touch.

In October, Srinivasan presented the system at an event at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, called “Art Beyond Sight,” sponsored by an organization of the same name, which promotes ways to help blind people experience visual arts. In museums, visually impaired people can experience art through verbal descriptions and touch, and devices such as BlindAid could allow them to find out how to navigate the museum before visiting.

“There is a big difference between going to a totally unknown place and a place for which you have a mental map,” says Srinivasan.

Topics: Computer science and technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Research Laboratory of Electronics, Technology and society, Mechanical engineering


I can not find so many adventages of this so called The BlindAid system except for the so called hightech ,I think a stick is ok for the bland !

And such device is so expensive !

I have a number of colleagues who are blind and would benefit enormously from this type of technology.

The current stage of development would be helpful because many blind people avoid going to new places because it is so hard to navigate them, even with a dog. (A dog in a new place doesn't know which way to go, either!)

There is a service called "travel training," in which blind people travel with a companion to learn their way around. This technology could make it easier for people to review their visit or prepare for it, improving their ability to memorize the layout.

It would be even more helpful if eventually there was a portable version that could be brought with the person, perhaps using a sensory glove that would perceive an object as hotter than an empty space.

Most people have no idea how many people in this world are blind or have such severe visual impairments that travel and exploration are impossible for them. Those you see are the tip of the iceberg, the most daring and those with the best spatial memory. Many more blind people are stuck at home or only going to a few places they have learned to navigate.

New technology can mean enormously enriched lives for the blind, and for those of us who miss out on knowing and learning from them.

Found a very good and informative site. I am glad to read all articles in your site. Came to know many informative information. Thanks!

The BlindAid, without doubt will be a great boon to the visually challenged people....but researchers' job doesn't end by just creating it... They have to make it available to a large community..beyond the sub-continental US.. I hope you guys are gonna help it reach to wide variety of nations

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