[AI] Hands On Learning For The Visually Impaired

pradeep banakar pradeepsocialwork at gmail.com
Tue Jun 10 03:50:33 EDT 2008


ScienceDaily (Jun. 9, 2008

When you think of the solar system you probably picture a textbook
diagram: nine planets, different sizes and colours, all circling the
bright yellow sun. But how can a visually impaired child take in this
information? How can they grasp how the solar system works?

European researchers have developed a computer program that lets
sighted and visually impaired pupils explore space together. Using a
special device similar to a robotic arm, a visually impaired child can
move around the solar system and hear about the planets.

Sighted children can guide their visually impaired partners. As they
move the mouse, the pressure and resistance in the robot arm gently
nudges the visually impaired user in the right direction.

Visionary research

The space explorer is just one of many applications developed by the
EU-funded MICOLE project which is bringing multi-modal interfaces into
the classroom.

The software is one of the first releases of multi-modal educational
computer programs. It allows sighted children and the visually
impaired to collaborate, helping to remove some of the barriers that
the latter group faces every day in mainstream education.

Multi-modal computing is on the rise. Soon a third sense could be
added to the sight and sound that computers currently use as their
mode of output. Haptic devices, such as the robot arm, enable users to
control computers as if they were using a mouse. Such devices also
provide output – of movement, pressures or even raised bumps to
deliver information to the user via the sense of touch.

This output is exploited in another MICOLE application. Current
software drawing software allows pupils to create pictures, but the
lines are in relief.

Using the haptic device, they can actually feel the picture. As they
move a virtual stylus over the picture on the screen the pupils can
sense the raised lines through the device communicated to their
fingertips.

Collaborative design

"These applications have been very welcomed in our test classrooms,"
says project coordinator Roope Raisamo. "It has been wonderful to see
visually impaired and sighted children really working together and
sharing the same experiences and opportunities.

"Our aim was to allow blind people to create, manipulate and share
information using hearing and touch to replace use of vision, and to
work with other blind and sighted people. We want to see visually
impaired people take a full role in society and work at an equal level
with sighted people."

Before MICOLE, very little was known about how multi-modality could be
used when blind people work alongside those with full sight. But
through its user-centred approach – lots of observation, focus groups,
consultation and field-testing – the MICOLE partners have greatly
added to our understanding about such collaborative work.

"Adding the sense of touch to information and communication technology
is just getting to the point where it can be commercialised," Raisamo
continues. "The first people to benefit are people with disabilities,
especially people who are blind or have visual impairment. The more
senses you can use, the more multi-modal your computer interface, the
more inclusive the technology can be."

Much of the knowledge that the team has built up during the project's
three years have been incorporated into guidelines for software
developers on how to develop successful applications for collaborative
learning.

Raisamo believes the project has increased the potential for
successful commercialisation of multi-modal software in all fields.

A feeling for the future

MICOLE's researchers have done far more than publish theoretical
documents and produce a few prototype applications. Their main output
comes in the form of the 'MICOLE architecture' and an accompanying
software development toolkit. The architecture is like a high level
programming language. It provides the virtual environment – all the
processes and mechanisms for software applications to function in a
multi-modal fashion.

It is designed so that software developers can quickly build new
multi-modal applications for the visually impaired and can be used for
applications in widespread disciplines including medicine, education
or 'edutainment'.

"We've made it an open source architecture to encourage more people to
access it, spread it, and adapt it for their own requirements without
worrying about licenses or intellectual property," says Raisamo.

So far 14 organisations from outside the project have downloaded the
architecture and toolkit files in the first six months since these
were made available for download on the project's website.

"This is encouraging," Raisamo says. "We know that several groups are
working on new applications and we hope that the market will take off
soon."

Reachin Technology, a key MICOLE partner and a distributor of the
haptic robot device, could be one of the first to sell multi-modal
software based on MICOLE's research.

Fully functional

Multi-modal interfaces can support people with many disabilities
because if one of the modalities is missing, the system remains
usable.

"If multi-modal applications are used widely and match the needs of
different users, they could narrow the gap between sighted and
impaired children," says Raisamo.

MICOLE, which received funding from the EU's Sixth Framework Programme
for research, ended in August 2007. However, the partners involved
continue to push research and development in the field.

Raisamo's team is currently working with local schools to develop new
applications based on the architecture – one that explores physical
phenomena, another the natural sciences.


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Adapted from materials provided by ICT Results.
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