Dr. Lotfi Merabet and Researchers in the Department of Ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary along with Harvard Medical School have recently developed a virtual game environment in which visually impaired individuals can develop a mental map of unfamiliar surroundings. On March 27th, Dr. Merabet published a new video article explaining how the game works to build navigation skills in the visually impaired.

Virtual Game Teaches Visually Impaired to Navigate Unfamiliar Surroundings

Dr. Merabet speaks of the difficulty experienced by the blind and visually impaired when trying to find their way around unfamiliar territory. Merabet explains, “For the blind, finding your way or navigating in a place that is unfamiliar presents a real challenge. As people with sight, we can capture sensory information through our eyes about our surroundings. For the blind that is a real challenge… the blind will typically use auditory and tactile cues.”

How it works

The game uses computer generated layouts of public buildings along with spatial sensory feedback to create a virtual space that mimics a real life journey through the territory. The goal of the game is for players to find their way through the space and retrieve gems, taking them safely outside of the building without getting caught by roaming monsters.

Participants explore the virtual buildings with the use of a keyboard for movement and headphones that give the user auditory cues to help them orientate themselves with the surrounding space. After some repetition the user will develop an understanding and mental map of the space. Dr. Merabet and his team of developers are also working towards using this technology in other user interfaces, for example, instead of using a keyboard, the game may eventually be playable with a Wii remote or a joystick.

ABES at Carol Center for the Blind

The game uses a software called ABES (Audio Based Environment Simulator), which currently represents the physical environment of the Carol Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts. Visually impaired patients get familiar with the entire layout of the building by using the game metaphor to explore their surroundings, which is a more natural way to navigate than to try and follow directions.

These ground-breaking developments are likely to be invaluable to the 285 million blind individuals in the world, and may even be able to help with cognitive deficits and brain injury recovery.

[Image via jove]