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Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Greatest Achievement with Sensory Substitution

Those of you following this blog may be wondering why I haven't been posting for the last couple of months. Part of the reason is the fact that I've been so bogged down with school. The study of optics can be a real trip if you were born not seeing. Balancing my responsibilities at school with the demands of driving lessons has been a challenge, but I'm managing nicely. Below is an article posted today in the local Mensa news letter. This publication often includes the latest medical and scientific breakthroughs of local members.
The text is below:

Amanda and Dave met last fall at a Mensa meeting.  Amanda was born totally blind but thanks to an innovative free program called “the vOICe” (available at Amanda is now able to convert small black-and-white images taken with a digital camera into sound files and for the first time “see”  the shape, outline and texture of objects.

The system is very crude so Dave began to work with Amanda looking at ways to improve the program.  Initially Amanda had limited skills when it came to visualizing 3-D shapes.  Then Dave built her a box illuminated with Christmas lights along the edges(picture 1, 7337).

  The box and the numerous outdoor Christmas light displays they visited at Christmas allowed Amanda to make rapid progress in understanding the “sound” of particular three dimensional spaces and objects.

Soon Dave realized that Amanda's acute sense of hearing combined with the vOICe system opened up the possibility that she might be able to “see” enough to drive a car.

They began to experiment.  Because Dave’s car has a manual transmission, the first step was teaching Amanda how to use the clutch and gearshift while guiding the car (very, very slowly) using the traditional “tap tap tap” of the white cane (picture 2, 7372).

  She proved to be a natural at coordinating the clutch and the transmission but the cane system didn’t work very well at all for the “where to aim the car” part; for example, she simply had to hit the brake and stop when an Austin Transit bus came up next to her and made too much noise for her to hear the tapping of the cane (picture 3, 7374).

 Of course Amanda doesn’t have a learner’s permit, so much to Amanda’s annoyance Dave insisted that they move the next step to the Texas School for the Blind parking lot, where they began to practice with a camera on the dashboard and the vOICe interface (picture 4, 7376).

When the car is actually moving Dave is in the passenger’s seat.  There are still huge problems; Amanda can see high contrast scenes best, so daytime driving is a problem and they have not yet come up with a solution that allows Amanda to use mirrors.  And a late-night I 35 experiment almost turned into a disaster.  Traffic around Austin is getting much, much worse.

So far the State of Texas is  unwilling to make reasonable accommodations and issue a learners permit to a totally blind beginner, but the recent proposal to allow Google’s unmanned vehicles to be tested on Texas roads opens up the possibility that Amanda might qualify under an unmanned vehicle provision, a good start but clearly not the sort of accommodation that the Americans With Disabilities Act will eventually require as vOICe-like programs improve.  We’ll keep you posted.