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Haptic Technology and Digital “Sight” for the Blind

Oct 15th, 2013 | by Ellen Seder

Ellen Seder

October 15th, 2013

New technology is being developed and studied by Walt Disney Co. to bring digital sight to people who are blind. Imagine touchscreens that not only look 3-D, but actually feel 3-D too. Disney has been researching in hopes of advancing haptic technology.

Haptic Technology

Haptics typically refers to the ability to experience shape and material properties of the environment with our hands. More and more, the word haptic(s) is used to refer to all touch and its related abilities, including being able to sense positions and movements of one’s limbs. However, today, haptics generally refers to the science of touch in real and virtual environments (isfh.org).
Many of us experience haptics every day. A vibrating phone or game controller is a common example of haptics in popular consumer devices. Haptics can improve a user’s experience. It improves usability by engaging more of the user’s senses; it allows the experience to be more realistic by stimulating the senses and including tactile feedback; and by providing users with feedback, haptics can create a more confident experience (immersion.com).
This technology that Disney is researching, attempts to “fool” the brain into thinking that there is an actual bump or texture on a completely smooth touchscreen. This would assist people who are visually impaired to interact with the digital world like never before. For example, one would be able to feel the dips and valleys of a topographical map and navigate the it by touch, rather than by listening. They hope this could mean that in the near future, a blind child can watch a cartoon movie in theaters for the first time (foxbusiness.com)!
Like Apple’s VoiceOver for iOS, there are currently technologies available that allow those who are blind and visually impaired to use touchscreen devices just as well as people with sight. Soon, the research that Disney and other companies are exploring will help the visually impaired to use touchscreens even more efficiently (foxbusiness.com).

How does it work?

Disney uses an electrovibration to change friction, which artificially stretches the user’s skin as his or her finger slides across the touchscreen. This gives the sensation of touch on intricate digital items in real time. It attracts and releases the finger from the touchscreen, allowing the user to physically interact with virtual items (foxbusiness.com).
In the big picture, haptic technology could enhance 3-D experiences for people of all abilities!

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