Handheld Technology

"Force Illusions" Could Help the Visually Impaired

A new report suggests that by 2020, well over 150 million wearable devices will ship worldwide. While increasingly, many tech companies are paying closer attention to the disability market. Ayesha Salim speaks with Tomohiro Amemiya, a cognitive scientist at NTT Communication Science Laboratories, about his “Force Illusions” wearable device that could benefit people with visual impairments.

At the moment, we have many devices that produce a simple vibrating alert to notify you of something. But what if you could wear a device that took that one step further: giving you a feeling of actually being pulled in one direction?

Tomohiro Amemiya, a cognitive scientist at NTT Communication Science Laboratories has been working on this technology for years, and he believes it will open a new channel for wearables, especially for the visually impaired:

“Because most mobile haptic devices were limited to producing simple vibrations for alerts and attention, we really wanted to create a force display conveying a sensation beyond 'rumble'.”

Amemiya has worked with two other researchers since 2004. “In the first two years, I was not able to create a clear sensation of being pulled,” he explains. “But in 2007, I've succeeded in creating it through trial and error.”

He explains how the technology works: “My force display, Buru-Navi3 [video], exploits the nonlinearity of human haptic perception to induce force sensation. A small mass in the device oscillates along a single axis with asymmetric acceleration, which produces a brief strong force in one direction and a long unnoticeable one in the other.”

“When you hold it, the device typically experiences a sensory illusion characterized by a sensation of being continuously pulled (or pushed). The key technology is the ‘asymmetric oscillation’. Although temporal averages of the two opposing forces applied alternately are the same, the holder feels an illusory sensation of being pulled in one direction,” Amemiya says.

When working on the Buru-Navi2 project, Amemiya worked with some volunteers that were visually impaired, for whom he thinks this technology will be the most useful.

“I hope that the device will work as a guide dog. Probably, it can be attached to a white cane for the blind. For example, a blind person who wants to go out somewhere unfamiliar would easily travel there.”

“Another example is an evacuation aid. It will work as an emergency navigation light for the blind. The results shows that this device can be an effective walking aid even for people with vision or hearing loss during a fire or other emergency.”

Amemiya tells me that all these examples will require a GPS function, a compass or a routing system. They have already been installed in smartphones and wearables.

According to the World Health Organisation, about 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired and in developed countries, most blind people still navigate using a standard cane. Clearly this is a huge market and Amemiya is not alone in developing a device for this community. Some technology companies have designed vibrating smartshoes to help the blind whilst rumours have it that Microsoft is looking to develop a ‘smart headband’ to help blind people to 'see' the world around them through audio instructions and alerts.

“Wearables and haptic devices essentially suit each other,” says Amemiya. “This is because they both touch the skin. I hope that many people focus more on the benefit of haptic technologies. In addition, the technology will integrate seamlessly with vision and sound displays. I mean, the technology will open a new channel for wearables.”

There have been challenges along the way, however: “Down-sizing the device is not easy because the physical intensity of the oscillation decreases with decreasing device size. I have focused on the finger tips, where tactile receptors are densely distributed.”

“With the highly sensitive capacity of receiving rich information from these receptors, the brain can capture the details of tactile interactions with the weaker stimuli. Additionally, by carefully designing the pattern of asymmetric oscillation, I have succeeded in creating a sensation of being pulled.”

Amemiya admits more work needs to be done to get this fully working as a wearable device:  “My device, Buru-Navi3, creates strong force illusions while being pinched between fingers. But the effect becomes weaker if the device is just placed in contact with the skin (as it would be in a watch). So I need to test what kind of force stimuli create the sensation more clearly and strongly in the form of wearables.”

While Amemiya’s “force illusions” device would be of great benefit to the visually impaired, Amemiya sees it being used for a variety of purposes, including in the form of watches, shoes, glasses. In the far future, Amemiya even sees the possibility for his device to be embedded in the human body.  Whatever the future holds for this specific product, it is clear that there is lots of potential in the disability market - and for a chance to make people’s lives easier.


Ayesha Salim is E-Content Writer at IDG Connect


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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