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Tech Friday, August 5th 2011 at 2:14 pm

Device That Lets You See With Your Ears

There is a new device that allows people with visual impairments to hear what the world around them looks like. The device, called vOICe, is one part spy glasses, one part webcam, and one part smart phone. It converts visual signals into auditory ones so that people can see with their ears.

Developed by Dutch software engineer Peter Meijer, vOICe works by mapping visual images to sound, and then giving users who cannot see a sense of what an object is and where it is located. A pair of glasses with a tiny webcam in the bridge provides the visual input and a small pocket-sized computer that runs the software that converts the visual input into an auditory output through headphones the user wears.

The device accounts for differences in sound, like pitch or volume. For vertical locations, up is signaled by a high frequency, while down is signaled by a low frequency. For horizontal locations, placement is gauged based on the time it takes to get from left-to-right of the frame. The vOICe also features timed-stereo panning to keep an object within a picture, while giving a panoramic view. Even shades of light are conveyed by the device, with bright white at a maximum volume and dark falling silent.

Michael Proulx, a neuroscientist at Queen Mary’s College in London, who will demonstrate the device at the American Psychological Association meeting, told Discovery News:

“The program takes visual input from the camera, then scans the image from left to right. Then you hear this soundscape where the changes in frequency and volume correspond to pixels in the image.”

Software that can convert visual signals to audio has been available for around 15 years. What makes vOICe special is that it utilizes new technology to make the devices portable and more applicable to daily living. However, the device is still pretty complicated to use. It takes about three months of training to be able to use it properly.

So far, vOICe hasn’t been a commercial success, due in part to how difficult it is to use. Meijer also says that the bulky glasses aren’t particularly attractive, and most people with a visual impairment would rather not stand out for wearing the device. However, he says that these are things about the device that can definitely be improved.

In the future, Meijer believes that neuroscientists like Proulx will benefit a lot from studying the effects of this kind of technology. The way the brain responds to dealing with what are basically instructions for how to visualize the world may show that some parts of the brain are more adaptable than previously thought.

(via Discovery News)

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