Blind World Magazine

GRAB Haptic Interface to Touch Graphics.
Monday, May 01, 2006.

A new type of computer interface will possibly enable people with a visual disability feel and hear 3D graphic environments.

It is being developed as part of an EU funded research project called GRAB (Computer Graphics Access for Blind people). The aim is to create workspaces that enable people with visual disabilities to navigate virtual 3D environments. Eventually, the technology could allow users "feel" a virtual street map or pie chart or play a 3D game, all of which are tools the project has already developed.

Two of the six partner organizations behind the development of the device belong to Ireland. The National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) is a user organization involved in the testing of software and hardware components.

"The GRAB project is very exciting," said John Wood of the NCBI. "One of the most practical uses, which we have been testing, is with charts and graphs. These are not usually accessible to blind or visually impaired people. Spreadsheet information can now be translated into 3D, so a user can feel a pie-chart or graph."

Dublin-based Haptica is a GRAB project partner currently examining the commercial aspects of the project. A company spokesperson has said that the device is in its prototype phase and its commercial availability cannot be confirmed. The product may first be sold to public authorities so they can be at peoples' disposal in libraries and other public venues.

The device along with the software it runs on is called the Haptic and Audio Virtual Environment (HAVE). It has two mechanical arms that are attached to the all of the user's fingers over a large flat surface such as a desktop.

The arm works as follows: a shape or object is loaded onto a computer which then relays the information to the HAVE arms, so that they are aware of the dimensions of the virtual object. The user would be able to move his fingers only along the edges of the invisible shape, with the HAVE arms restricting any further movement.

Elastic material like cotton or rubber can be simulated with the HAVE arms offering more resistance as the virtual object is compressed. Even textures and bumps or characteristics like stickiness and smoothness can be simulated using this technology. The interface controls and guides the user towards any remaining surfaces or objects in case of failure to explore all the virtual workspace.

Users can, depending on the application, receive audio information providing details about virtual objects and their actual position in the environment. The technology can be controlled through verbal and keyboard commands and can zoom in and out to further explore objects that are too big or small.

The EU-funded 1.38 million GRAB project has brought together researchers and experts from Ireland, Spain, UK, Italy and Germany. The technology can supposedly be used for applications in disparate fields such as architecture, art, aeronautics and medicine.

Source: GRAB Project

End of article.

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