[AI] More Absurd Research to Bother the Blind

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Wed Jul 14 03:27:42 EDT 2010

Taken from Braille Monitor July 2010.

      From Barbara Pierce: In the past, would-be helpful Hannahs have
invented combination white canes and snow shovels for the blind, special
toilet paper dispensers for the blind, red strobe lights and flashlights
clipped to the cane for use at intersections, and dozens of other pointless
devices. Now Swedish researchers have decided that, because we can't
identify facial expressions, we need computerized assistance in order to
converse effectively with others. It is possible that such technology might
be helpful to some people on the autism spectrum who cannot make
connections between facial expressions and the emotions that cause them,
but aiming such research at solving nonexistent problems for blind people
is perverse and will only complicate our efforts to persuade people that we
are normal folks who can't see. As Mary Ellen Gabias pointed out in her
message transmitting the following report, "This sort of research is
particularly harmful to parents of blind children who already wonder how
their kids will interact socially. If some of these researchers have their
way, the blind will become bionic people with computers and other machines
poking out of every pocket and attached to every body part. I understand
that some sighted people don't know what to do at first when they can't
make eye contact with a blind person, but let's not get carried away."
      Mary Ellen is a longtime Federationist who lives with her husband and
children in British Columbia, where she is a leader of the Canadian
Federation of the Blind. After she read this article in the April 28, 2010,
issue of Science Daily, she wrote the following letter to the chief
researcher. Here is her letter followed by the Science Daily article:
      I read in Science Daily for April 28 about a new device which your
organization has researched to help blind people read the emotional content
of facial expressions through a tactile display. I believe your research is
predicated on a false premise. It is true that sighted people use facial
expressions to determine the emotional state of the person with whom they
are interacting. However, the fact that millions of telephone conversations
take place every day, some including highly emotional content, demonstrates
that observing facial expression is not necessary for complete
      Human beings are highly resilient and adaptable. Deaf people have
developed a thoroughly articulate language that requires no sound
transmission. Blind people are able to understand nuanced emotions using
auditory cues and without visual clues. The fact that most people use one
sense for gathering information does not mean that other sources of that
information are inaccurate or inferior.
      I recommend that your organization work with the Jernigan Institute,
an internationally renowned research organization operated by blind people
for blind people. I also invite you to read The Value of Decision, a speech
delivered by Dr. Marc Maurer at the annual convention of the National
Federation of the Blind in the United States. It can be found at <
www.nfb.org > by following the links from the Publications page.
      I have shared the news report of your research with a number of blind
friends and colleagues. Their reaction has been universally derisive. They
feel, as I do, that blind people suffer more from negative attitudes
reinforced by the promulgation of such research than we do from being
unable to see facial expressions.
      I have written bluntly because scarce research dollars should be
spent on truly meaningful projects, not on creating devices that have the
effect of increasing social isolation by reinforcing the notion that sight
is necessary for normal communication.
Very truly yours,
Mary Ellen Gabias
        New Braille Technology Helps Visually Impaired "See" Emotions
      Without vision it's impossible to interpret facial expressions, or so
it's believed. Not any more. Shafiq ur Réhman, Umeå University, presents a
new technology in his doctoral thesis-a Braille code of emotions. "It gives
new opportunities for social interactions for the visually impaired," he
says. Lacking the sense of vision can be very limiting in a person's daily
life. The most obvious limitation is probably the difficulty of navigation,
but small details in everyday life, which seeing people take for granted,
are also missed. One of those things is the ability to see a person during
a conversation. Facial expressions provide emotional information and are
important in communication. A smile shows pleasure, amusement, relief, etc.
Missing information from facial expressions create[s] barriers to social
      "Blind persons compensate for missing information with other senses
such as sound. But it is difficult to understand complex emotions with
voice alone," says Shafiq ur Réhman. His thesis addresses a challenging
problem: how to let visually impaired "see" others' emotions. To make this
possible, the research group has developed a new technology based on an
ordinary Web camera, hardware as small as a coin, and a tactile display.
This enables the visually impaired to directly interpret human emotions.
"Visual information is transferred from the camera into advanced vibrating
patterns displayed on the skin. The vibrators are sequentially activated to
provide dynamic information about what kind of emotion a person is
expressing and the intensity of the emotion," he explains.
      The first step for a user is to learn the patterns of different
facial expressions by displaying the emotions in front of a camera that
translates the emotions into vibrational patterns. In this learning phase
the visually impaired person [has] a tactile display mounted on the back of
a chair. When interacting with other people, a sling on the forearm can be
used instead.
      The main research focus has been to characterize different emotions
and to find a way to present them by means of advanced biomedical
engineering and computer vision technologies. The project was funded by the
Swedish Research Council.
      The research group's spin-off company Videoakt AB has been granted a
patent for the technology, which soon will be available as a product on the
open market. Tactile feedback is also interesting in other areas as a
future communication tool for seeing people as well. "We have successfully
demonstrated how the technology can be implemented on mobile phones for
tactile rendering of live football games and human emotion information
through vibrations. This is an interesting way to enhance the experience of
mobile users," explains Shafiq ur Réhman.

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