Feature

Scientific breakthrough: Seeing with your ears

Thanks to a prototypical device, blind people can now scan their environment with special software that translates obstacles into sound warnings

A neuroscientist has unveiled an "amazing" new device that could allow the blind to visualize what's around them, helping them to navigate through their surroundings. Though it's still just a prototype, the device, named the vOICe, was unveiled this week at the American Psychological Association meeting in Washington, D.C. It combines a set of goggles, a webcam, a smartphone, and earbuds to convert visual information into sound. Here, a brief guide to this innovation:

How does the vOICe work?
A webcam that's mounted in the goggles takes a snapshot, which is scanned from left to right by the smartphone's vOICe software program. Objects in the snapshot are assigned different frequencies and volumes, based on where they're located. Then the listener hears a "soundscape where the changes in frequency and volume correspond" to the objects in the snapshot image, again from left to right, says neuroscientist Michael Proulx, as quoted in Discovery News. If there's an obstacle such as an ottoman on the user's left, it will be represented by a shift in tone and frequency that occurs in the first part of the recording.

Is this all new technology?
Not really; the technology to convert visual signals into audio has been around for about 15 years, but with advances in phone technology, "mobiles are now smart enough to handle the required imaging software," says Tibi Puiu on ZME Science. Also, the small size of newer smartphones is what makes this technology easily portable for the first time.

Is the vOICe easy to use?
Not at first: The developer has found that "one of the biggest challenges is that it takes people three months of training to use it." But once a blind or visually impaired person gets used to the device, it's expected to give them much more independence than they would otherwise enjoy.

Sources: Discovery News, ZME Science

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