Sights in Sounds
New technology is allowing the blind to “see” by way of soundscapes. Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have developed a sensory substitution device (SSD) that has allowed subjects trained in using the system to “read” an eye chart with letters even tinier than those normally used by international standards.
The Hebrew University test group included eight congenitally blind participants, and all eight passed the Snellen Acuity Test, which is the international standard for determining blindness or low vision. While normal vision is 20/20, the test group reached a median of 20/360, which means that what a person with normal vision could see at 360 feet, they can see at 20 feet. However, this score of 20/360 is better than the WHO criterion for blindness which is 20/400, leaving these formerly classified as blind to now fall under the category of low vision with the SSD.
The researchers at Hebrew University have been using a SSD developed by Dr. Peter Meijer of Holland called “The vOICe,” which converts images from a tiny camera into soundscapes, using a predictable algorhythm that allows the user to listen and then interpret into visual information coming from the camera.
Extraordinarily, the users only had a brief training but were still able to use the SSDs to identify complex everyday objects as well as people’s locations, postures, and even facial expressions. The users were also able to read letters and words using the SSDs.
This is even more promising because the current cutting-edge assistive device for the blind is retinal prostheses (aka “bionic eyes”), but these are very expensive, invasive and target only certain specific blindness diseases; therefore leaving many without the option.
Comparatively, The vOICe and other SSDs are attractive alternatives, available today to the 39 million worldwide blind population. The majority of the population live in developing countries, who could benefit greatly from this technology allowing users to “see” using sound.
image by Scinern, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.