A video gaming fan play games with an Oculus Rift during the International Games Week Berlin trade fair in April. A video gaming fan play games with an Oculus Rift during the International Games Week Berlin trade fair in April. A video gaming fan plays a game with an Oculus Rift during the International Games Week Berlin trade fair in April. (Photo: Axel Schmidt / Getty Images)

How virtual gaming technology could boost reality for the visually impaired

A team of researchers hopes to leverage the Oculus Rift to increase accessibility for people with low vision.

More than 7 million Americans have some type of visual impairment, according to the National Federation of the Blind. And with each day, new technologies are emerging that help us better understand the issues they face.

Among those working to make advancements in this field is Israeli professor Shiri Azenkot of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute in New York City. The school is a collaboration between Cornell University in upstate New York and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel.

Along with graduate student Yohung Jow, they are using the Oculus Rift virtual reality platform to research and develop solutions for use by people with visual impairments.

“The kinds of questions we’re answering have to do with software, but they’re more science questions,” Azenkot tells From the Grapevine. “We're just being able to understand what problems people with low vision face, and what kinds of technology solutions could potentially address those problems.”

Azenkot and Jow attached a camera to an Oculus Rift headset to capture video of what a wearer is seeing. Then they manipulated the video and displayed it on the wearer’s field of view, a process that is called video see-through augmented reality. “We can change your perceived view of the world,” Azenkot says.

Currently, their research is focused on using customizable visual cues to help users identify objects in front of them. For example, if a person is looking for a particular item on a shelf, they would simply tell a program what they’re looking for, and the software would pinpoint the object. “We want to find out what kinds of input makes sense in this situation, and what kinds of visual enhancements work for low-vision people,” she tells us.

The current setup isn’t entirely practical; it’s quite large already, and the research team has it connected to a computer. Azenkot says they’re using it to test their interaction ideas, which they want to later apply to a mainstream head-mounted display and use as an accessibility tool.

“There’s so much development in head-mounted displays and platforms right now; the hope is that what we’re coming up with will be able to be deployed on something that looks more like regular glasses.”

How to tell the technology what you’re looking for is another challenge, one that Azenkot’s team isn’t focusing on. But she explains, in theory, you’d be able to speak to a device much like you speak to your phone.

A screenshot of what it would look like to use an Oculus Rift headset using Azenkot and Jow's software to find a product in a grocery store.A screenshot of what it would look like to use an Oculus Rift headset using Azenkot and Jow's software to find a product in a grocery store.

Other groups have been working to develop computer vision technology for use by the visually impaired. Orcam is a new product built end-to-end that helps to interpret the world for a user simply by pointing at it.

“In the grocery store scenario, you could potentially walk around with an Orcam and point to a product and have it read the text on it to you. But that’s incredibly time-consuming, and it’s also kind of stigmatizing because you don’t want to stand in the supermarket and be pointing at various objects. It looks weird and people don’t want to feel different or stigmatized,” Azenkot tells us.

Azenkot herself is visually impaired, and the majority of her research revolves around low vision and visual impairments. Her team has also been working on making 3D printed objects interactive so that they can be used as an educational tool for blind people.

She says they can leverage available technology to create solutions appropriate for low-vision people that take into consideration the various disabilities and social issues they face.

A recent multimillion-dollar gift from AOL will fund a new Connected Experiences Laboratory at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute in New York, as well as at the Technion Institute in Israel. Azenkot will be one of five faculty members between the two schools to head up the laboratory.

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How virtual gaming technology could boost reality for the visually impaired
A team of researchers hopes to leverage the Oculus Rift to increase accessibility for people with low vision.