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01-04-2013 | Internal medicine | Article

Video game helps blind people gain navigational skills

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medwireNews: An audio-based video game, designed to mirror the layout of an actual building, helps blind people improve their navigational skills, show preliminary findings from an ongoing study.

"For the blind, finding your way or navigating in a place that is unfamiliar presents a real challenge," explains study author Lotfi Merabet (Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA) in a press statement.

"As people with sight, we can capture sensory information through our eyes about our surroundings. For the blind that is a real challenge… the blind will typically use auditory and tactile cues."

Merabet and team developed the Audio-based Environment Simulator (AbES) using architectural plans of a real building to create a virtual building that the participants were asked to navigate using directional audio cues. To motivate full exploration, the participants were asked to 'pick up' jewels that were hidden around the virtual building and avoid roving monsters.

Following three sessions of 30 minutes using the video game training program, the three young blind participants (aged 19-22 years) were taken to the actual building modeled in the game and set a series of navigational tasks.

The participants were first given start and end point information for 10 predetermined routes in the building and asked to complete them within 6 minutes (in a different order to those presented in the virtual game). They then completed five 'drop off' tasks where they were positioned at a set point in the building by an investigator and asked to find the shortest route out of the building.

The virtual training seemed to help the participants gain an accurate spatial cognitive map of the building with similar achievements obtained for the physical compared with the virtual tasks. The mean percentage correct performance for the physical tasks was 88.7% versus 90% for the virtual tasks. A good score was also achieved for the drop-off tasks, with the participants choosing the shortest route out of the building three times out of five.

Writing in the Journal of Visualized Experiments, the team comments: "As demonstrated in this initial phase of the study, the interactive and immersive nature of the game can improve the individual's spatial awareness of a new environment, provide a platform for creating an accurate spatial cognitive map, and may reduce the insecurity associated with independent navigation prior to arriving at an unfamiliar building."

They conclude: "We find that the immersive and highly interactive nature of the AbES software appears to greatly engage the blind user to actively explore the virtual environment. Applications of this approach may extend to larger populations of visually impaired individuals."

By Helen Albert, Senior medwireNews Reporter

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