A new-fangled software developed by scientists from Tel Aviv University can aid the blind and visually impaired with navigational "sight".
The software developed by Dr. Orly Lahav of Tel Aviv University's School of Education and Porter School for Environmental Studies is connected to an existing joystick, a 3-D haptic device that interfaces with the user through the sense of touch.
People can feel tension beneath their fingertips as a physical sensation through the joystick as they navigate around a virtual environment which they cannot see, only feel: the joystick stiffens when the user meets a virtual wall or barrier.
The software can also be programmed to emit sounds - a cappuccino machine firing up in a virtual cafi, or phones ringing when the explorer walks by a reception desk.
With the 3D virtual worlds based on maps of real-world environments, the blind are able to "feel out" streets, sidewalks and hallways with the joystick.
It will give them the control, confidence and ability to explore new streets making unknown spaces familiar.
It also allows them blind people to make mental maps in their mind.
The software, called the BlindAid, takes physical information from our world and digitizes it for transfer to a computer, with which the user interacts using a mechanical device.
"This tool lets the blind 'touch' and 'hear' virtual objects and deepens their sense of space, distance and perspective," said Lahav.
"They can 'feel' intersections, buildings, paths, and obstacles with the joystick, and even navigate inside a shopping mall or a museum like the Louvre in a virtual environment before they go out to explore on their own," Lahav added.
The tool transmits textures to the fingers and can distinguish among surfaces like tiled floors, asphalt, sidewalks and grass. In theory, any unknown space, indoors or out, can be virtually pre-explored.
According to Lahav, the territory just needs to be mapped first - and with existing applications like GIS (geography information system), the information is already there.