December 18, 2008

“˜Audio Aquarium’ Allows Blind People To Experience Sea Life

Georgia Tech scientists have dreamed up a contraption called the "audio aquarium" as a way to let blind people experience sea life.

The researchers say they wanted to help people with disabilities do something that's more fun than functional.

Bruce Walker, an associate professor who works with the school's Center for Music Technology, said many of the things they do help the blind solve basic problems like shopping, working, and brushing their teeth.

"But there are very few assistive technologies that help them do the fun stuff," he said.

The aquarium is an attempt to do just that.

The "audio aquarium" works through a camera that uses recognition software that tracks objects based on their shape and color. It then links each movement to different instruments that change in pitch and tempo as the fish patrol the tank. Fish that move toward the surface have a higher pitch. The faster they move, the faster the tempo.

Anisio Correia, who is blind, enjoyed an early test of the audio aquarium.

"When I take my 12-year-old daughter to the aquarium, the only enjoyment I get is from her reactions," said Correia.

Correia, a vice president with the Atlanta-based Center for the Visually Impaired, said anytime you try to make an experience like that more accessible, it's a wonderful thing.

The creators of the audio aquarium hope to install their invention in aquariums and zoos across the nation. He has started talking with the Tennessee Aquarium, and he hopes to strike a deal with the world's largest fish tank, the Georgia Aquarium.

Witnesses say the eerie music can be pretty mesmerizing, even psychedelic. And scientists can rig it to extend well beyond aquariums. Walker has used the same technology to track ants, animals and even kids playing in a soccer game.

Walker revealed a screen on his PC that showed a trio of ants marching to a crazy tune. One makes a high-hat drum pop as it wanders a tiny cell. Another controls a plucky guitar.

He can't help but shrug when he watches the insects create a jazzy harmony. He calls the experience "trippy."


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