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How blind people see the world

Written by Miles Taylor | Published on 28 November 2013

Helping blind people develop ways to map their world, based on senses such as hearing.

We use our eyes to see but it’s the brain that translates the information to make an image.
My research looks at how we can use that same information and translate it into an image in the brain through a different sense. 

Dr Michael Proulx, Department of Psychology

According to the World Health Organization, around 40 million people in the world are blind, while another 250 million have some form of visual impairment.

And age-related disorders, such glaucoma  and diabetes mean these numbers are on the rise in the ageing populations of the UK, Europe and other countries. 

So developing new solutions that allow those individuals to interact with sighted people, and the sighted world, in a way that lessens any of problems that can arise from being blind is becoming increasingly important.

University of Bath researchers are contributing towards these solutions by studying blind people to gain insights into how:

  • becoming blind affects the way we perceive, and think about, the world
  • other senses are able to gather information about the world.

These insights are helping to shape new technology that will help visually impaired people overcome some of the limitations of their surroundings.

Visual experience

Studies were carried out that compared sighted individuals, congenitally blind individuals and late-blind individuals on a number of fundamental cognitive tasks. This work uncovered key differences in how the congenitally blind perceive and represent the world compared to those who have had visual experience. 

Researchers from the Department of Psychology collaborated with computer scientists to understand the psychology of blindness, and how blind people might be able to use their remaining intact senses to receive information that they would otherwise be receiving through vision.

Sound and touch

A series of experiments were conducted to see how visual information could be represented in sound and touch.

Computer Science researchers at Queen Mary University will use the psychological findings from these tests to develop new computer software applications that aim to develop new software - supporting people who are visually impaired in their work and leisure activities.

The new technology will be tested at the University of Bath for functionality and usability to gauge its impact on the ability of blind people to collaborate with sighted people.

The project brings the disciplines of psychology, computer science and engineering together in new ways that aim to influence the individual fields, but ultimately allow for a bright future for those individuals who are becoming visually impaired. And enable them to feel they have a full, interactive place with the visual world.

'Seeing' with your ears

The vOICe sensory substitution device is a revolutionary tool that helps blind people use sounds to build an image in their minds of the things around them.

Tests using the device found that, even without any training, the best performances exceeded the level of visual performance of the current invasive technique for vision restoration, such as stem cell implants and retinal prostheses.

Although the use of stem cells might improve to provide the literal sensation of sight with time, the affordable and non-invasive nature of The vOICe provides another option.

As well as an alternative to invasive techniques, sensory substitution devices might be best used alongside them to train the brain to see again, or even for the first time.

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