Virtual reality used for blind to map real world

Thu Sep 17, 2009 12:34pm EDT
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By John Gaudiosi

RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters Life!) - Virtual reality can let video game players escape from the real world but a group of researchers are using virtual reality to help the blind join the real world more, by navigating real places.

Researchers at the University of Chile and Harvard Medical School are using three audio-based PC games that allow players to navigate a labyrinth, a subway system and real-world buildings based on audio cues. "Essentially the games work by interpreting information generated by spectral sounds like footsteps and door knocks," said Lotfi B. Merabet, PhD of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School and co-author of "AER Journal: Research and Practice in Visual Impairment and Blindness."

"The player uses a keyboard to move and interact with the virtual world. By sequentially interacting within the virtual 3-D environment, the user learns to build a spatial cognitive map of their surroundings."

The goal was to develop audio-based gaming to help blind children develop spatial, cognitive and social skills.

"(We've) concentrated on developing the gaming software as a rehabilitation tool to allow blind users to survey unfamiliar buildings before actually navigating through them in real life, as well as conducting brain imaging studies to uncover how the brain of a blind individual accomplishes this task," said Merabet.

According to the World Health Organization, there are about 314 million visually impaired people worldwide and about 45 million of them are blind.

There are over 50 audio-based games for the blind currently available, according to Kelly Sapergia, who reviews games created by and for blind people for the American Council of the Blind's "Main Menu" radio program.

She said these vary from pinball to "Space Invaders"-style games to "GMA Tank Commander," which is a World War II game that lets you drive a tank and shoot various weapons at enemies.   Continued...

<p>A blind Indian boy attends his class at a blind school in the northern Indian city of Jammu September 21, 2005. REUTERS/Amit Gupta</p>