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Virtual Maps for the Blind

Virtual Maps for the Blind
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (09/10/09)

BlindAid, developed by Tel Aviv University’s Orly Lahav, is a new program that helps the blind navigate through unfamiliar locations.  BlindAid digitally maps real-world places and, with the help of a pre-existing three-dimensional haptic device, enables blind users to navigate them virtually before visiting them in person.  The program uses a joystick that produces different sensations under a user’s fingertips.  “Walking” around a virtual room, blind users can feel a digital wall ahead when the stick tenses; it also recreates the feeling of grass, sidewalks, asphalt, and tiled floors.  Moreover, the device replicates sounds, such as the hiss of an espresso machine to indicate a nearby coffee shop, or the ringing of phones for a customer service desk.  Lahav gave the program to several volunteers from the Carroll Center for the Blind.  After three or four uses of BlindAid, a partially blind woman successfully visited 12 unknown, real-world locations while wearing a blindfold.  Lahav says that blind users “get feedback from the device that lets them build a cognitive map, which they later apply in the real world.  It’s like a high-tech walking cane.”  She says that with the help of a geographic information system, the program could help blind users explore any unknown area virtually before visiting it alone in the real world.


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