Virtual Reality Interactive Environments for the Blind

Learning the configuration of a new space is a very important task, most of all when someone cannot rely on sight. Observing how blind individuals moves inside a known environment (for example their house) it is possible to notice how they can navigate in different spaces without hitting walls and obstacles, how their movements are carefully calibrated, as if they were indeed able to see the surrounding environment. This is a clear indicator of the importance of creating a mental representation of a given environment, and of the accuracy this representation in the minds of blind and visually impaired individuals.

The process of creating such representation can be particularly long and complicated: blind individuals normally need to navigate within the space in particular conditions (usually silence) and for a certain number of times in order to build a mental map. Are we able to give them an easier way to learn the configuration of an environment they don’t already know?

Furthermore, people living with impaired vision need to rely upon other sensory inputs in order to learn the configuration of a new space: but is it true that their other senses, and in particular hearing, are heightened if compared with the ones of sighted people?

This research project asks 2 questions: how different are the spatial hearing mechanisms of blind individuals if compared with sighted ones? And is it possible to accurately model computationally [in a virtual reality (VR) space] the auditory cues used by blind individuals for understanding the configuration of an environment, in order to provide an easy mechanism for someone with visual impairment to learn the configuration of a new environment in advance of being introduced to it?

Participans: Lorenzo Picinali, VISTA (Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutlands blinds association), Tony Stockman (Queen Mary University), Bernhard Seeber (MRC Hearing Research Centre, Nottingham), Brian FG Katz (LIMSI-CNRS, France) and RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People). 





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