Our ability to navigate spaces independently, safely and efficiently is a combined product of sensory, motor and cognitive skills. When navigating through an unknown environment, the sense of vision plays a primary role in guiding sighted people safely to their destination. Lacking this information, blind people face great difficulties in exploring new spaces. For most blind individuals, walking into an unknown environment can be quite unpleasant and uncomfortable even after extensive orientation and mobility (O&M) rehabilitation training. The current O&M teaching methods have significant deficiencies such as limits on exploration time, exploration space, the physical effort needed and the required number of repetitions. In this proposed continuation of a collaborative project (funded by a R21 Exploratory/Developmental research grant from NEI) between The Carroll Center and The Touch Lab at MIT, we propose to further develop BlindAid, a desktop virtual environment (VE) system with 3D haptic and 3D audio feedback with which blind users can interact with virtual models of real spaces in order to become familiar with the spaces and their content prior to visiting them. This project includes two categories of specific aims. The first set of specific aims is to design and develop a VE system for users who are blind. It includes the development of (a) a virtual environment editor for the instructor/experimenter, and (b) navigation tools, such as, a virtual guide agent, multi- scale environments and GPS compatibility. The second set of specific aims is to conduct experiments on the use of the VE system, as follows: (a) exploration of virtual models, (b) construction of cognitive maps, and (c) activation of the cognitive maps when traversing through real spaces. Exploring interactively in the VE is expected to give the people who are blind a holistic and flexible cognitive model that will help them control the information density, and to provide a stimulating, comprehensive and thorough acquaintance with the target space. As a result, the three long-term benefits of this research are (a) integrating the VE system into an O&M curriculum at rehabilitation centers to improve their training services for blind individuals;(b) developing a VE system that can be used to download spatial maps with haptic and auditory feedback via the Internet that are compatible with GPS systems;(c) integrating the use of VE system in K-12 academic curriculums. Associated benefits include the development of collaborative research between the O&M service providers and researchers in the advanced information technology and cognitive science research fields.
The proposed research project has been designed to expand the usability and usefulness of a novel virtual environment (VE) system that has been shown to help blind individuals explore and become familiar with unknown environments (e.g., a public transportation station or public library) before actually encountering and navigating through them. The planned experiments to evaluate this VE system with touch, feel, and audio interfaces can also contribute to the scientific understanding of how people who are blind construct and use cognitive maps of real spaces. This system can be integrated into the traditional orientation and mobility training curriculum at rehabilitation centers, or can be used to interact with downloaded spatial maps via the Internet, similar to the current map programs (e.g., Mapquest, Google Maps) that use a graphical interface for sighted users.