Cincy Science: University of Cincinnati investigates new technology for the visually impaired

CINCINNATI -- A recent study by the University of Cincinnati may lead to better ways to get around for the visually impaired.

Research participants experimented with a tool called the Enactive Torch  to navigate narrow passages and doorways. The device uses infrared sensors to detect objects and emit vibrations to a wristband, allowing the participant to better judge their own movements.

University of Cincinnati graduate student Luis Favela conducted the study using 27 participants. Each had to first navigate a passage and doorway using their normal vision, then blindfolded using a cane and blindfolded using the Enactive Torch. Favela presented his research at the American Psychological Association's (APA) annual convention earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that more than 6 million Americans age 40 and older will be affected by blindness or low vision by 2030  due to aging, diabetes and other chronic diseases. The CDC also sites vision loss among the top 10 leading causes for disability in the U.S. and vision impairment as a prevalent disability in children.

To shed a bit more light on the Enactive Torch and growing options for the visually impaired, Favela answered our questions.

1. How does this work?

Tom Froese and Adam Spiers developed the Enactive Torch in 2007. It’s a handheld device that measures distance using two infrared range finders. The information is then relayed to the user via a vibrating motor that can be strapped to their wrist. If an object is near, then the vibration will be more intense; if the object is far, then the vibration will be less intense.

2. What were you trying to find out?

We wanted to compare the accuracy of vision and sensory substitution devices, such as canes and the Enactive Torch, to make judgments about actions many of us carry out on a daily basis, judging if we can fit through openings such as doorways or passing between people on a crowded street.

3. What were the results?

There were some very surprising results. People are able to make judgments about what actions they can carry out with a cane and the Enactive Torch that are just as useful as the judgments made with vision. We assumed that people would make much better judgments based on vision, a sense that they use on a daily basis.

4. Why use the Enactive Torch?

There's an emotional stigma that people who are visually impaired experience, particularly children. When you're a kid in elementary school, you want to blend in and be part of the group. It's hard to do that when you're carrying this big, white cane.

5. What's next?

We’re interested in how participants’ confidence compares to how accurate they actually are, so how participants perform with the Enactive Torch on different tasks such as going up stairs or stepping over a gap in the ground and we're interested in the degree to which the Enactive Torch becomes “part of” the participants’ bodies.

6. Do you see more advanced models in the future?

I've been in contact with the original developers, and we've discussed more advanced versions, such as making it smaller and making it more sensitive.

7. Why is this important?

Visual impairment is on the rise in the U.S., especially in the elderly, veteran, and diabetic populations. The research can be sources of hope for these populations in the form of advancing technologies that can help people retain their independence to navigate the world around them.

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