Innovative technology improves opportunities for blind scientists

Additions to technology may aid blind researchers. (Photographer: Milosz1).

by Sam Saunders

New hope has been given to aspiring scientists who can’t see, as a device developed at Purdue University, Indiana, allows blind people to ‘see’ blood cells via haptic feedback. The device, which is the brainchild of Ting Zhang and her team at the university, consists of a joystick wired up to a computer which is connected to a microscope. The joystick provides haptic feedback to the user by vibrating to inform the user of different textures or pushes back against your hand, as it is moved over the wall of a cell (blood smears in this test).

In the test that was conducted, both blindfolded and blind people using the joystick were able to differentiate between red and white blood cells. Incredibly, Zhang also claimed that the users of the system were also able to get information about the shape, colour and texture of the samples by processing the feedback from the joystick.

The system works by processing the information collected by the computer from the microscope using computer vision algorithms, which obtains certain features such as cell walls. The computer then forms a digital image that allows the joystick to provide said feedback.

This development is a huge leap forward, as whilst it is relatively easy to translate written words to braille, it has been difficult to develop methods so that blind people can interpret other visual information. The current method for people without sight to get information from cells is very time consuming, as it requires someone to manually input the information into a computer, which is then converted into a textured printout.

As in Zhang’s words, this system ‘relies on having a non-visually-impaired person to process the data’ the development of her system is clearly leaps and bounds ahead of anything else that is currently on the market. This was proved in the tests, as the blind and blindfolded people gained more information from Zhang’s system than from using the old tactile paper method. She is also hoping that this development encourages more visually impaired people to study scientific subjects, and Zhang wants to ‘make it easier for them to do so.’

The new development has been welcomed by Fight for Sight, a leading UK charity that helps visually impaired people. Dolores Conroy, who works for this charity has called Zhang’s system a ‘really exciting approach’ and also acknowledges that ‘interpreting scientific data can be hugely difficult for someone with visual impairment.’

The progress made at Purdue University is proven in the tests they have conducted and this system makes a huge leap forward in terms of helping the visually impaired. Zhang and her team have provided genuine hope for those who want to study science but do not yet have the technology to do so, and her system will surely make it easier for them to realise their dreams.