When most of us get lost in unfamiliar territory – a hotel, for example – we consult a map to orient ourselves. But for the blind it's not so easy. With this in mind, researchers have developed a virtual gaming platform that uses other sensory cues to help blind individuals develop mental maps of new surroundings before visiting them in person.
The game platform uses virtual layouts of actual public buildings. Like a level map in a computer game, the simulated environment can be explored with a keyboard (future interfaces will use joysticks, or motion controllers like the Wii remote), but instead of using visual feedback to navigate, players don headphones and rely on auditory cues to orient themselves spatially. Players are then given a mission objective: find jewels within the building and carry them back outside, while avoiding building-roaming monsters who steal the jewels and hide them in a different location. Over time, this interaction helps the player generate an accurate mental layout not just of the simulated building, but its real-world counterpart.
“For the blind, finding your way or navigating in a place that is unfamiliar presents a real challenge,” explains study leader Dr. Lotfi Merabet, a clinical neuroscientist at Harvard who studies the neural mechanisms of blindness. "As people with sight, we can capture sensory information through our eyes about our surroundings. For the blind that is a real challenge."
Merabet and his colleagues have already developed an Audio Based Environment Simulator (ABES) for the Carol Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts that they hope will allow participants "to learn room layouts more naturally than if they were just following directions."
The software's demonstration and applications are presented in a new video article, published today in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (see above!).
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