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Dr. Roman Gouzman
Dr. Igor Karasin
The Virtual Touch System (VTS), developed by VirTouch Ltd. in Israel, contains revolutionary new computer hardware and software for the visually impaired, providing remote tactile access for mastery of multiple computer applications: graphics, text, education programs, art, photography and tactile games. The virtual graphics are displayed through rounded pins on top of a special mouse. In addition, VTS displays text tactually in regular alphabets as well as Braille.
Many applications providing the visually impaired with computer access have been developed over the years: speech synthesizers, screen readers and writers, and Braille translators. These applications were barely adequate for the original Disk Operating System (DOS). They do not allow the flexible access control attained through direct feedback. With the spread throughout the world of new operating systems as replacements for DOS, the blind’s access to computer graphics has become a key issue. The existing access applications do not permit mastery of this expanding computer graphic environment.
Many blind who over the years became expert at the computer are now seeing their skills become obsolete, their access to the Internet constrained. In frustration, many may abandon the computer as a means of gainful employment and creativity. In addition, many more are inhibited from entering the world of computers because of these developments. The vast majority of the blind who do not know Braille also require an alternative to the Braille screen reader, whereas the children require new ways to learn Braille.
When VirTouch Ltd. began the creative process three years ago, the challenge before us was to respond virtually to the need of the blind to process information both tactilely and sequentially. At the same time, new methodologies were required to be able to teach virtual exploratory strategies. Parallel to this challenge was the need to wed Spoken Word to Tactile Description, thereby expanding the brain’s data-processing capacity many times over.
The visually impaired are not alone among the disabled in their need for better computer access – those with motor coordination disorders need the added therapy provided by the manipulation of computer mouse and its cursor, with graphics as the best medium.
The new scientific breakthrough of the Virtual Touch System (VTS) promises to meet all these needs and expand the horizons of the blind.
Research and Development: The Results
VTS by VirTouch Ltd. offers a complete system that enables the blind to perform tactual processing of graphic information efficiently and cost-effectively. It allows them to carry out graphically based computer tasks with relative ease. VTS is the only product that allows flexible access control, attained through direct feedback from the computer screen.
VTS, an integrated system of both hardware and software, provides the blind with remote tactile access to text, maps, pictures, art, photography, tactile games, and graphic education programs (geometry, geography, algebra, biology, astronomy, chemistry, music etc.). The blind quickly learn to understand a picture by scanning it with their hand, whether traditionally on embossed paper or now with VTS.
VTS thus allows recognition by touch of any graphic shape. More so, it also enables the drawing of symbols, icons, and graphic schemes. In addition, VTS’ unique design allows the processing and production of Braille signs, standard alphabets, as well as the use of voice-mediated text.
The VTS hardware consists of a special mouse containing three tactile displays. As a mouse, the VTS hardware is easily integrated into existing computers. Each of its displays incorporates 32 rounded pins that respond vertically through the cursor to computer graphics. Using just three fingers, the blind can understand the curvature of lines and shading. The relatively small number of electronic cells needed to operate the array of pins means an appreciable reduction in the System’s overall cost.
Each pin moves up and down on several height levels, thus permitting adjustment to the user’s personal requirements. More importantly, the VTS displays also enable the presentation of four colors:
Six buttons on the top and side of the mouse provide user interaction with the computer through screen navigation, the sending of commands, and the changing of image resolution.
The new VTS software provides access to a standard alphabet based on pin alignment – a set of patterns that is easy to learn and read when compared to Braille. For the first time, the sense of touch can now be fully integrated with sound as well as Braille. VTS also increases motor skills that are often compromised among the blind. The unique combination of VTS hardware and educational software allows users to train themselves in subjects that usually require a teacher.
With this technology as a base, VirTouch Ltd. is also developing an additional software package similar to Microsoft’s Windows 95/98/2000/NT, which will allow the blind to operate easily a variety of standard programs with graphic interfaces. Through VTS the blind are provided with:
The entire process of R&D was based on the interaction and integration of two disciplines: the psychology of the blind, especially their cognitive processes, and computer sciences. Parallel to this, a team of blind computer professionals was actively associated with this process at every step of the way. Now, two years after the beginning of their creative association, the authors are ready to launch VTS into the open market based on a comprehensive series of achievements, all in the realms of intellectual property creation, unique product development and science management.
Prototype Development: utilization of "lego" construction applied to piezo-mechanic and electronic base elements; special tactile screen design; cell integration and novel moving pin configuration; achievement of a high level of tactile graphic resolution; development of special electronic parts, two product prototype generations, and unique operating software.
Methodology development: pioneering methodology developed based on the dramatic differences between successive tactile analysis and simultaneous visual perception; adaptation of small tactile finger screens rather than one full tactile screen; incorporation of specific spatial coding strategies.
Applications: text-reading programs in regular embossed letters and standard Braille; computer games ("Car Racer", "Bull’s Eye", "Radar Navigator"); graphic applications for art, photography, geography, geometry, algebra and chemistry; other educational and instructional materials.System Tests
VTS was tested scientifically with 22 blind individuals, some of whom were born blind and some had no prior experience with computers. They ranged in age from 12-60 and represented different educational levels. The results show that all but two found VTS to be good to excellent when asked about their level of enjoyment and achievement. The results were compiled on February 3, 1998. We also learned that even those born blind can easily use symbols as a new language for communication with sighted society through the computer. This was achieved on the average of 3-5 minutes per symbol/icon (house, chair, computer, etc.). Our research, and VTS, has thus strengthened the claim that the computer is of crucial importance for the blind.
In addition, more than 100 blind have tested VTS at the various conferences and exhibitions where it has been demonstrated. All with enthusiastic results.Product Availability VirTouch Ltd. is preparing to launch VTS into a full-fledged commercial program. Its introduction into the market for the year 2000 can revolutionize the extent of computer use among the blind, opening up a whole range of computer-based professional, educational and recreational activities. Thus equipped, the blind will be able to function better and more productively in this rapid electronic age. For the first time, the blind will be able to participate actively in the new holistic computer environment.
The first patent was issued on June 15, 1999 by the U.S. Patent Office for this new VTS hardware and software. A second patent for other tactile uses of this technology is in preparation. At the same time, VTS incorporates a number of well-established technologies and off-the-shelf components that have been specially adapted. This combination makes it possible to apply readily available production lines to the manufacture of VTS.
About the Authors
The three authors all work at VirTouch Ltd., a hi-tech, start-up company based in Jerusalem, Israel. Together they integrate the fields of psychology, computer sciences, and communications into a new holistic creative endeavor. VirTouch Ltd. was established in October 1996, within the framework of the Jerusalem Software Incubator Ltd. (JSI), a partnership of CLAL Computers and Technology Ltd., endorsed by the Chief Scientist of the Israel Ministry of Industry and Trade.
Dr. Roman Gouzman, VirTouch Ltd. President, is an expert in psychology and pedagogical sciences with specialization in educational development for the blind. He has 25 years experience both in Russia and in Israel in the research and teaching of visual perception, symbolic representation, cognitive modeling and media education. Dr. Gouzman is Senior Researcher at the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential, Jerusalem, as well as Council Member of the European Association for Audio-Visual Media Education, Brussels.
Dr. Igor Karasin, VirTouch Ltd. Director for R&D, is an expert in system analysis, mathematics and computer programming. He has 30 years experience both in Russia and in Israel in system synthesis, image processing, dynamic simulation, software engineering, operation research and project management. Dr. Karasin has held the positions of Associate Professor at the Universities of Riga and Izjevsk.
Mr. Art Braunstein, VirTouch Ltd. Director for Communications and U.S. Foreign Service Officer (ret.), has specialized for 30 years in economic development, international health and communications programs. He has a Masters in International Health from Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Braunstein has applied his skills, especially in international health program design, development, promotion and implementation for the disadvantaged, in several different areas of the world over many years.
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