Gaming Visuals For The Blind

Visually impaired can develop spatial awareness through new gaming technology

(RxWiki News) For the blind, learning the layouts of new places just got a little easier.

The visually impaired can develop better spatial awareness by playing a new video game software that uses only audio cues, a new study has found.

"Ask your optometrist about spatial awareness programs."

The system is called Audio-based Environment Simulator; it uses only audio-based cues, allowing blind users to learn the layouts of real-world buildings.

This virtual environment game, created by Lotfi Merabet, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Visual Neuroplasty and Jaime Sanchez, PhD, of the University of Chile, helps participants better navigate actual versions of buildings explored within the game.

"Learning through such interactive games represents an innovative and motivating way to improve crucial skills that allow blind individuals to remain functionally independent," Dr. Merabet said.

Although the study is small, 17 early blind participants, who were blind by the time they were 3-years-old, were randomly divided into one of two groups.

Half the participants were divided into either the "gamer" group or the group taught spatial layouts using a facilitator who could describe the set paths.

These kinds of training are re-creations of lessons normally taught to blind individuals by mobility teachers.

All participants worked through a virtual building that actually exists in reality and collected jewels hidden in various rooms throughout the virtual building. And there are monsters to avoid as well.

Both groups spent 90 minutes with the software over three training sessions.

Researchers found that both groups had similar success navigating the test paths after training with the game, and the time it took to navigate the building was also similar.

When told to find the nearest exit in the building, participants in the gamer group chose the path closest to the exit significantly more often than those who had the verbal navigators, regardless of their starting point.

Those using a directed navigator were also significantly more likely to select the longest route.

The spatial information learned in the game was accurate and transferrable, researchers said.

"Individuals in the gamer group appeared to have a more flexible and robust understanding of their contextual surroundings and possessed a spatial cognitive map that could be manipulated to generate alternate navigation routes," the authors said in their report.

"It is possible that acquiring contextual spatial information within a gaming context facilitates a form of visuo-spatial imagery in the blind."

They note that future research should look into how the blind accurately creates such shapely spatial information and what is it about a gaming context that helps the process.

"The brain is an amazingly adaptive wonder of nature," said Dr. Chris Quinn, OD, an optometrist with Omni Eye Services and dailyRx Contributing Expert.

"When visual stimuli is absent as in with these blind subjects, auditory learning can replace what we would traditionally believe could only be learned through vision."

The authors also say their study has a steep learning curve which may limit how fast the gaming technology is adopted within the blind community.

Their system is designed specifically for this community and doesn't yet consider whether being able to see previously affects how the blind now navigate.

Funding for the project came from the National Institutes of Health and the National Eye Institute grant.

The authors declare no competing interests.

The study was published online September 19 in PLOS ONE.

Review Date: 
September 23, 2012