Writing with feeling
Issued: Mon, 07 Mar 2011 10:43:00 GMT
Most people take being able to write for granted, but for the visually impaired even simply signing a name can be a difficult task to master. Now, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction Stephen Brewster has developed a method for helping to teach blind children to write using haptic technology.
Haptic technology is a method of interacting with computers through your sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations and/or motions to the user. 'If you're blind you still need to write. For example, legal documents require a signature and it's very difficult to learn to write because you're not getting any visual feedback from the pen,' explains Professor Brewster.
He has developed a 'force-feedback' pen that helps blind and visually impaired children write clearly and consistently by gently guiding their hand. Called McSig, the system uses an off-the-shelf haptic device called the Phantom Omni: a stylus mounted at the end of a motorised arm that is capable of moving, and resisting movement, in three dimensions.
In tests with visually impaired children, Professor Brewster found that after a 20-minute practice session on the haptic device, the children: many of whom were unable to write at all before their training; were able to write recognisable letters.
Recently, and in collaboration with the University of Auckland, he has been piloting the device in schools in Auckland. 'We have worked with pretty much every blind student under 16 years in the whole of Auckland and it seems to work surprisingly well,' Professor Brewster says. 'The device can guide or constrain certain types of movements, so as the teacher draws on a touch screen the movements are echoed directly back to the student, allowing the student to feel the movements and learn the letter shapes.'
Harnessing the senses
Professor Brewster's research has implications not only for visually impaired people.
He is working on technology that he hopes will help us all experience the world in a different way. 'My research is in multi-modal interaction, which is all about combining the different senses to use computers or access information, the idea being that the more ways of interacting that you can provide, the richer the data. If your eyes are already busy, for example when you're using a mobile phone to text and you're walking down the street, why not use some of your other senses instead of getting run over?'
Large sets of data, such as charts or graphs, could be delivered through sound. 'You can explore data in a different way through your ears than you do through your eyes. You can also listen to it much faster than you can look at it,' says Professor Brewster.
For one of his current PhD students the outcomes of the project are of personal interest to her, as she is blind. 'Wanda is a space physicist, but she needs computer science to develop the tools to be able to analyse her data,' says Professor Brewster. 'Physicists have large and highly multidimensional data sets that are being read by multiple satellites in space. She's looking at how you can bring that together to allow you to analyse it.'
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