redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
New research in the burgeoning field of haptic technology at the University of California-Berkeley has discovered that people who are blind or visually impaired tend to outmaneuver their sighted counterparts – especially when they used both hands and multiple fingers to find their way around.
The reason that blind subjects outperformed people with normal-range eyesight when it comes to using haptic (or tactile) technology is that they’ve developed superior cognitive navigation strategies, claimed Valerie Morash, a doctoral student in psychology at the university and the lead author of a new paper published Tuesday in the online edition of the journal Perception.
“Most sighted people will explore these types of displays with a single finger. But our research shows that this is a bad decision. No matter what the task, people perform better using multiple fingers and hands,” Morash explained in a statement.
“We can learn from blind people how to effectively use multiple fingers, and then teach these strategies to sighted individuals who have recently lost vision or are using tactile displays in high-stakes applications like controlling surgical robots,” she added.
Scientists have been investigating how receptors on a person’s fingertips communicate information to the brain for decades, the university said. Now, researchers at several multimedia companies (including Disney) have begun using more different types of tactile interfaces, which use vibrations and either electrostatic or magnetic feedback to allow tablet computer and mobile device users to navigate or experience what things feel like.
Morash and colleagues from UC Berkeley and the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco recruited a total of 28 participants – 14 blind adults and 14 who were normally sighted but blindfolded for the course of the study – and had them complete a series of different tasks using a tactile map.
For instance, they were asked to use various hand and finger combinations to find landmarks, determine if a road looped around, or similar challenges. They found that both blind and sighted participants performed better when using both hands and several fingers, though the visually impaired subjects were on average 50 percent faster at completing the tasks (and even quicker when using both hands and all of their fingers).
Specifically, the study authors reported that tasks requiring line-tracing were faster when fingers were added to a hand that was already in use, and sometimes when added to the second hand, and that using both hands and multiple fingers allowed participants to complete local and global search tasks more quickly.
Tasks involving distance comparison were faster when multiple fingers were used, but not when two hands were used. Furthermore, the researchers found that participants were able to move faster in a straight line when using multiple fingers.
In all, their findings were found to support the notion that tactile systems perform best when they are capable of exploiting the independence of multiple fingers, and that blind participants benefitted more from two hands or multiple fingers than their sighted counterparts. This conclusion “indicates that the blind participants have learned, through experience or training, how to best take advantage of multiple fingers during haptic tasks,” the authors wrote.
“As we move forward with integrating tactile feedback into displays, these technologies absolutely need to support multiple fingers,” noted Morash. “This will promote the best tactile performance in applications such as the remote control of robotics used in space and high-risk situations, among other things.”