Oct. 15 - Researchers at the University of Bath in England have developed a technology that transforms images of objects into sounds for the blind. They say their device, called the vOICe system, offers an effective, non-invasive solution to help the blind navigate their environment. Jim Drury went to see it first hand.
==RESENDING WITH CORRECTED HEADLINE== Called 'The vOICe', this software trains the brain to turn visual images taken from a camera into sounds that a blind person can use as navigational reference points. Dr Michael Proulx wants to promote it as a non-invasive alternative to retinal surgery for the blind. The training software breaks up two-dimensional photographs of objects by creating a scale of tonal notes related to an object's height and density. (SOUNDBITE) (English) HEAD OF VOICE RESEARCH TEAM, DR MICHAEL PROULX, SAYING: "You hear this high-pitched noise and then it seems to go away and it's replaced by... these sweeping sounds and if you listen carefully after a couple of times you might be able to pick up on three sounds that correspond to the three basic parts of the cactus as it scans from left to right." UPSOT: CACTUS Devised by Dutch scientist Peter Meijer in the 90s, The vOICe's latest model was tested on both blind and sighted volunteers by Proulx's team at the University of Bath. The tests showed object recognition levels higher than those achieved by post-stem cell implant patients in a 2012 study in the US. SOUNDBITE (English) HEAD OF VOICE RESEARCH TEAM, DR MICHAEL PROULX, SENIOR LECTURER IN PSYCHOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF BATH, SAYING: "It's true that if you have a retinal implant you do have some experience of vision....However, what's really surprising is the ability to actually use those invasive devices....still requires a lot of learning and in a lot of ways it's very similar to the amount of learning that's involved in learning to use a device like this." After screen training, volunteers had to find 3D objects in a room. Stereo headphones helped research assistant Sara Dell'Erba navigate her way around this recycling bin. UPSOT: DELL'ERBA SAYING: "The bin is right there" Within minutes she was able to differentiate between different sounds and find her way around. UPSOT: APPLAUSE AND PROULX SAYING: "Well done. You even chose the harder side to go round." SOUNDBITE (English) SARA DELL'ERBA (PRON: DER-LAIR-BA), STUDENT AT UNIVERSITY OF BATH, SAYING: "By hearing the noise of what I was looking at I could tell when the white ended, so when the high pitched noise ended, that would mean where the bin would end." Dave Brown devoted his PhD to testing volunteers after training them how to use The vOICE. SOUNDBITE (English) DAVE BROWN, RESEARCH OFFICER AT UNIVERSITY OF BATH, SAYING: "Certainly in naive users a lot of our experiments after four hours they will certainly be able to distinguish objects and localise objects far above chance, but then like learning a language, the more you practice the better you get." Brown says the device is best suited for use indoors, where users can learn the contents of a room. Publication of an open-source training manual is planned and Proulx hopes vOICe treatment could be offered not just as an alternative to surgery, but in conjunction with it, giving the blind a new outlook on life.