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Smart glasses with new ‘acoustic touch’ feature may help blind or low-visioned persons recognize and reach objects

Oct. 25, 2023.
2 min. read 3 Interactions

Similar to "echolocation" with a cane (for example) to visualize objects by their sound

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Amara Angelica

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Amara Angelica is Senior Edtior, Mindplex

A research team member who is blind uses acoustic touch to locate and reach for an item on the table (credit: photo taken by Lil Deverell (co-author) at the Motion Platform and Mixed Reality Lab in Techlab at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia, CC-BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Wearable smart glasses technology is becoming popular in the assistive technologies industry. The tech aids computer vision and other sensory information to translate the wearer’s surrounding into computer-synthesized speech.

Acoustic touch

The researchers explored the potential of a new technique known as “acoustic touch.” It is similar to human “echolocation*”—providing a “wearable spatial audio solution for assisting people who are blind in finding objects,” they explain.

Unlike traditional vision-aid systems, this new acoustic touch technique uses smart glasses to “sonify” (convert objects into distinct auditory icons) when the object enters the device’s field of view. This draws inspiration from human echolocation*.

This innovative approach employs head scanning and auditory icons to represent objects in the user’s field of view. It leverages head tracking and binaural (a type of spatial audio) rendering technology to offer high-quality auditory cues that assist users in pinpointing the location and identity of objects.

(It’s conceivable that generative AI methods could further increase the quality of audio representation of visual data.)

Evaluation study

“We developed a wearable ‘Foveated Audio Device’ to study the efficacy and usability of using acoustic touch to search, memorize, and reach items,” say researchers from the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Sydney, together with Sydney start-up ARIA Research.

“Our evaluation study involved 14 participants—7 blind or low-visioned and 7 blindfolded sighted (as a control group) participants,” they said. “We compared the wearable device to two idealized conditions: a verbal clock face description and a sequential audio presentation through external speakers. We found that the wearable device can effectively aid the recognition and reaching of an object.”

The researchers also observed that the device “does not significantly increase the user’s cognitive workload. These promising results suggest that acoustic touch can provide a wearable and effective method of sensory augmentation.”

* Watch How This Blind Man Uses Echo Location To Ride a Bike

Citation: Zhu, H. Y., Hossain, S. N., Jin, C., Singh, A. K., Duc Nguyen, M. T., Deverell, L., Nguyen, V., Gates, F. S., Fernandez, I. G., Melencio, M. V., Bell, R., & Lin, T. (2023). An investigation into the effectiveness of using acoustic touch to assist people who are blind. PLOS ONE, 18(10), e0290431. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0290431

Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) Round 11 CRCPXI000007, the ARIA research, the University of Technology Sydney, and the University of Sydney. Received by C.J, V.N and C.L. Website: https://business.gov.au/grants-and-programs/cooperative-research-centres-crc-grants.

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