Tag Archives: blind

New tactile book helps blind children better grasp the world

Some of the illustrations developed by the researchers. Credit: UNIGE.

Blind children are at an obvious disadvantage from their sighted counterparts, the latter of whom have access to more learning opportunities thanks to their extra sense. Aiming to narrow this gap, researchers have devised books with tactile illustrations that make it easier for children to follow along by exploring 3D mini-scenarios with two fingers. This approach is particularly useful for studying history, the researchers said.

Moving fingers as moving legs

The advent of tactile writing systems, such as Braille, for the visually impaired was a game-changer. The braille alphabet, numbers, and punctuation are represented through three-dimensional tactile bumps that can be read via touch by people who are blind or who have low vision.

In the same way that braille leveled the playing field in terms of reading, psychologists at the University of Geneva in Switzerland are trying to do the same for illustrations.

If you visit the children’s books section in any library, you’ll notice a wide range of storybooks and informational books filled with colorful, interesting pictures. Before they can read or even recognize the letters of the alphabet, these illustrations serve as visual lessons, serving an important educational role. The bright colors and appealing images add interest as an adult reads aloud.

Tactile illustrations are designed to serve the same role as visual illustrations — and they’re not exactly new. For decades, publishers have been working with professionals who have experience in helping children with disabilities to produce tactile books. These typically employ story box objects, which are real objects related to the book, alongside tactile illustrations, as in pages with tactile features that allow the child to use their fingers to interpret maps, diagrams, or the form of objects. For instance, a page might have raised lines and shapes that follow the contour of a human hand or teddy bear.

These books are certainly useful but the team led by Edouard Gentaz, a professor of psychology at the University of Geneva, wants to add to the experience by introducing a new immersive layer.

In collaboration with the non-profit publishing house Les Doigts Qui Rêvent, the researchers have designed 3D scenarios that are meant to be explored with two fingers. According to the authors, this new type of tactile illustration stimulates the body’s experiences in interaction with objects.

The two fingers act like two legs. “These movements can be used to simulate actions such as climbing stairs, running or jumping on a trampoline,” said Dannyelle Valente, first author of the study and a researcher at the Université Lumière Lyon 2 and the University of geneva.

In a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers tested these illustrations on eight blind children and 15 sighted children aged 7 to 11. Another cohort consisting of blind and sighted children of the same age had to recognize the same objects depicted with traditional texture technique act as a control to compare the outcomes of the results.

“The results showed that the gestural exploration process activates the sensorimotor patterns associated with the depicted object, meaning it’s easier for blind and sighted children to identify it,” said Professor Gentaz.

A prototype children’s book, called Balade des Petits Doigts – Little Fingers Do The Walking, has been produced in association with Les Doigts Qui Rêvent and will soon be available for parents and children to read together, regardless of whether they are blind or not.

“Tactile books that use gestures and body simulations have a high potential for sharing since the sensory experiences are the same for sighted children and blind children,” added Dr. Valente.

Doctors restore patient’s sight with stem cells, offering new hope for cure to blindness

Scientists have developed a specially engineered retinal patch to treat people with sudden, severe sight loss.

The macula lutea (an oval region at the center of the retina) is responsible for the central, high-resolution color vision that is possible in good light; when this kind of vision is impaired due to damage to the macula, the condition is called age-related macular degeneration (AMD or ARMD). Macula lutea means ‘yellow spot’ in Latin.

Picture of the back of the eye showing intermediate age-related macular degeneration.
Via Wikipedia

Douglas Waters, an 86-year-old from London, had lost his vision in July 2015 due to severe AMD. After a few months, Waters became part of a clinical trial developed by UC Santa Barbara researchers that used stem cell-derived ocular cells. He received his retinal implant at Moorfields Eye Hospital, a National Health Service (NHS) facility in London, England.

Before the surgery, Water’s sight was very poor, and he wasn’t able to see anything with his right eye. After the surgery, his vision improved so much that he could read the newspaper and help his wife in the garden.

The study, published in Nature Biotechnology, shows groundbreaking results. Researchers could safely and effective implant a specially engineered patch of retinal pigment epithelium cells derived from stem cells to treat people with sudden severe sight loss from wet AMD. This is the first time a completely engineered tissue has been successfully transplanted in this manner.

“This study represents real progress in regenerative medicine and opens the door on new treatment options for people with age-related macular degeneration,” said co-author Peter Coffey, a professor at UCSB’s Neuroscience Research Institute and co-director of the campus’s Center for Stem Cell Biology & Engineering.

Douglas Waters was struggling to see up close after developing severe macular degeneration, but 12 months on he is able to read a newspaper again

AMD usually affects people over the age of 50 and accounts for almost 50% of all visual impairment in the developed world. The condition disturbs central vision responsible for reading, leaving the surrounding eyesight normal. Wet AMD is caused by hemorrhage or liquid accumulation into the region of the macula, in the center of the retina. Wet AMD almost always starts as dry AMD. Researchers believe that this new technique will be the future cure for dry AMD.

Scientists wanted to see whether the diseased retinal cells could be replenished using the stem cell patch. They used a specially engineered surgical tool to insert the patch under the affected retina. The operation lasted almost two hours.

Besides Water, another patient, a 60-year-old woman who also suffered from wet AMD, underwent the surgery. The two patients were observed for one year and reported improvements to their vision. The results were incredible — the patients went from being almost blind to reading 60 to 80 words per minute with normal reading glasses.

“We hope this will lead to an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy that could be made available to NHS patients within the next five years,” said Coffey, who founded the London Project to Cure Blindness more than a decade ago.



World-first Braille Smartwatch brings all the connectivity of a smartphone to your fingertips

South Korean company Dot is launching the first-ever Braille Smartwatch to give visually impaired people the same connectivity of modern devices at the tips of their fingers.

And it does so in sleek style.

Smartphones and smartwatches are pretty neat. They owe a big part of their appeal to the touchscreen — by merging the display with the input method, you get more ‘screen’ and better handling of the devices. But what opens up a whole new class of accessibility and convenience for you seems like nothing but an inert piece of plastic to visually impaired people.

With estimates placing the number of such people worldwide at over 285 million, that’s a lot of people not taking part in the fun. But one South Korean developer wants to bring the same level of connectivity in a medium that’s tailored to their needs. Named Dot, the company has unveiled the first ever Braille smartwatch under the same name.

The Dot Watch measures 43 mm (1,69 inches) in diameter and displays information through 4 proprietary dynamic Braille cells. These update the displayed information as if the user were running his or her fingers over a piece of static text. It offers users the option to change the speed at which the characters update on the screen for seamless reading, and two touch-sensitive areas to the left and right of the cells allow scrolling through the text.

It’s not a big device. Having only 4 pieces of text available might seem limited, but it’s enough to let the watch display time down to the second (the first Braille device to ever do so,) the date, and includes all basic watch functionalities such as a stopwatch or timer. Dot is confident that the freedom users will have in manipulating information through the touch sensors and auto scroll feature will allow them to easily access the information they require.

“The point is not to read a whole book, much like sighted users who won’t read a novel on a smartwatch — it’s to be mobile and connected,” a press kit from Dot reads.

The device also pairs to smartphones via the ubiquitous Bluetooth so it can receive, translate, and display all the information a phone would. Think alarms, texts, or messages from any platform (such as Messenger, directions from Google Maps, etc).

“When paired with a smartphone, additional functions [become available] such as receiving and reading notification messages, checking the caller information and receiving/rejecting the call, alarm, and “Find my phone” – a function that, when activated, calls up your connected phone with a loud “beep” and vibration,” Dennis Jung, Dot’s Account Executive, told me in an e-mail.

It’s not only about receiving, either — there are plans to enable Dot users to send simple messages using buttons embedded into the side of the device, although this feature may not be available in the first model.  It also supports Open API, so new apps and functions for the phone can be developed independently, lending huge flexibility to the device.

The Dot comes into a market dominated by sound-based devices. While these can rapidly convey information for the user, they have severe drawbacks: you can either plug in headphones to receive the message — which blocks surrounding sounds on which blind people rely for important cues about the world around them — or have it blasted out of speakers for all the world too hear. Tactile devices are available, but they’re usually bulky and prohibitively expensive.

“Though the introduction of refreshable Braille displays to the public aided in widespread increase in information accessibility, only 5% of visually-impaired people worldwide have the rare privilege of owning such devices. This is largely due to the price being an incredible barrier,” Dot explains.

“Thus, our company is working tirelessly to address the demand for an affordable actuator technology. Our team strives to apply it to the wearables concept and make it into reality.”

The company has been developing the Dot Watch for 3 years now with funding from some 140,000 backers. They plan to ship the first 100,000 devices starting this month, with the rest of the initial batch scheduled for next year.

The initial model will support English and Korean, with an estimated battery life of around 336 hours — this is obviously highly dependent on level of use. Depending on customer feedback, Dot says they can incorporate “other features such as voice recognition” or speakers.

Dot hopes to cap the price tag at around US$300 for the USA and 300 EUR in the EU.

“Our goal is to keep the price as close to each other no matter the currency and purchasing platforms.”

If you plan to get your hands on one, the first 1,000 units will be available in London retail.

An illustration of a rat wearing the geomagnetic device (credit: Norimoto and Ikegaya)

Blind rats ‘sense’ their location after a geomagnetic compass was strapped to their brains

Blind rats learned to navigate mazes just as well as those that could see, after scientists strapped a simple geomagnetic compass – the kind that’s found in your smartphone – fitted with electrodes directly onto their brains. Though they’re not naturally equipped to sense magnetic fields, the rats’ brains demonstrated tremendous plasticity and effectively incorporated a new sense! We can only presume this is possible in the case of humans as well, so the team from Japan which made the study believes blind people could incorporate a similar device – minus the brain hack. There are other alternatives after all, like say an iPhone app that acoustically alerts the blind person which way to turn or a sensor directly fitted into a walking cane.

An illustration of a rat wearing the geomagnetic device (credit: Norimoto and Ikegaya)

An illustration of a rat wearing the geomagnetic device (credit: Norimoto and Ikegaya)

Yuji Ikegaya and Hiroaki Norimoto, both  of the University of Tokyo, wanted to see if blind rats could have their ability to navigate the world restored, but not by making them see. Instead, one a more fundamental level, they sought to restore their allocentric sense – the sense that allows animals to recognize their position relative to the environment. So, instead of eyes, why not graft rats with a geomagnetic compass. The device was connected with  two tungsten microelectrodes for stimulating the visual cortex of the brain. The lightweight package could be turned on or off remotely and included rechargeable batteries. Once attached to the brain, the sensors would read the direction of the rat’s head and would send pulses relaying information that told the rat which direction he was facing – north or south, for instance.

Geomagnetic sensor system, with connection to the primary visual cortex (adapted) (credit: Hiroaki Norimoto and Yuji Ikegaya/Current Biology)q

Geomagnetic sensor system, with connection to the primary visual cortex (adapted) (credit: Hiroaki Norimoto and Yuji Ikegaya/Current Biology)

The rats were then trained to find food in a T-shaped maze, then on with more complex shapes. After tens of trials, the rats with the geomagnetic sensors perform indistinguishably from the rats that could see, as reported in  Current Biology.

“We were surprised that rats can comprehend a new sense that had never been experienced or ‘explained by anybody’ and can learn to use it in behavioral tasks within only two to three days,” Ikegaya says.

“We demonstrated that the mammalian brain is flexible even in adulthood — enough to adaptively incorporate a novel, never-experienced, non-inherent modality into the pre-existing information sources.”

The world is a far richer place than we can imagine with our puny five senses. Imagine sensors that could be fitted to your brain to effectively sense infrared light, or ultrasound. Sixth sense? How about 20th sense? These is definitely some food for thought for any biohacker.



The Enactive Torch uses infra-red sensors to "see" objects in front of it. Photo: Luis Favela

Star Trek walking cane lends virtual touch to the blind

Visual impairment is among the top 10 causes of disability in the US and it’s one of the fastest growing.  While there are currently six million Americans aged 40 or over suffering from visual impairment, either low vision or fullon blindness, studies estimate this figure to double by 2040 as a result of rising diabetes cases and other chronic diseases that also affect vision, as well as aging population. Cybernetic vision – electronic vision implants connected to the brain – is but one of the myriad of high tech solution being discussed at the moment which aims not only to help the visual impaired navigate their surroundings, but regain sight to almost full degree. Until this happens, however, we might be better off discussing more practical solutions.

Virtual touch

The Enactive Torch uses infra-red sensors to "see" objects in front of it. Photo: Luis Favela

The Enactive Torch uses infra-red sensors to “see” objects in front of it. Photo: Luis Favela

The walking cane has helped the blind navigate obstacles for thousands of years, and its design has remained largely unchanged since – a sophisticated stick. What looks like a combination between a TV remote and a Star Trek tricorder, the Enactive Torch aims to help all the aging baby boomers, injured veterans, diabetics and white-cane-wielding pedestrians navigate their surroundings using 21st century tech.

[ALSO READ] Device turns images into sound, allowing the blind to ‘see’

The device developed at University of Cincinnati is fitted with infrared sensors that estimate how far and how large obstacles are, conveying this information via vibrations to an attached wristband. The vibrations are subtle or more intense depending how close the obstacles are. This allows the user to make decisions on how to move about using a virtual touch as a guide.

“Results of this experiment point in the direction of different kinds of tools or sensory augmentation devices that could help people who have visual impairment or other sorts of perceptual deficiencies. This could start a research program that could help people like that,” says Luis Favela, a graduate student in philosophy and psychology.

UC's Luis Favela explains a task to Mary Jean Amon during a demonstration of Favela's research experiment in the Perceptual-Motor Dynamics Lab.

UC’s Luis Favela explains a task to Mary Jean Amon during a demonstration of Favela’s research experiment in the Perceptual-Motor Dynamics Lab.

For their experiment, 27 undergraduate students with normal or corrected-vision were asked to judge how well they would be able to pass through an opening just a few feet in front of them without shifting their normal posture. This assessment was made in three distinct situations: only using their vision, using a cane while blindfolded and using Enactive Torch when blindfolded. The whole idea was to see how judgments differ when these are made under the influence of vision or the Enactive Torch. Most surprisingly, all three judgements were equally accurate.

“When you compare the participants’ judgments with vision, cane and Enactive Torch, there was not a significant difference, meaning that they made the same judgments,” Favela says. “The three modalities are functionally equivalent. People can carry out actions just about to the same degree whether they’re using their vision or their sense of touch. I was really surprised.”

So, does this mean that the Enactive Torch is useless? Judging from these results alone would give the device far too less credit than it deserves. The findings suggest that wielding a cane blindfolded will help you navigate your surroundings just as well as you would using a pair of healthy eyes. False. Try doing that on stairs, traffic, unfamiliar places with varied obstacles. Some more thorough examinations and experiments would have been much more helpful.

“If the future version of the Enactive Torch is smaller and more compact, kids who use it wouldn’t stand out from the crowd, they might feel like they blend in more,” he says, noting people can quickly adapt to using the torch. “That bodes well, say, for someone in the Marines who was injured by a roadside bomb. They could be devastated. But hope’s not lost. They will learn how to navigate the world pretty quickly.”

The results were presented at the American Psychological Association’s (APA) annual convention, held Aug. 7-10 in Washington, D.C.