A video game that uses audio cues and computer-generated building layouts has proven to be better at improving a blind person's spatial awareness of that place than does actually walking them through it, according to new research out of Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.
The findings could have implications for how visually impaired people -- and possibly those without impairments -- best learn to navigate unknown territory.
"It is a tool to build a map of a place you have never been to before," Lotfi Merabet, the neuroscientist whose team developed the software used in the study (which appears in the Journal of Visualized Experiments), told Reuters. "The video game not only allows you to build a map in your mind, it allows you to interact with it mentally in a way that you wouldn't be able to if you were taught explicitly by walking through it."
Merabet sees the video game as an important step toward revolutionizing assisted tech for the visually impaired, of which there are some 285 million globally.
His team tested the game on teens to 45-year-olds who were either congenitally blind or had lost their sight. Some participants played the game, using audio cues to find hidden jewels in a building that in real life is a center for the blind in Newton, Mass. There was an added incentive: They had to remove those jewels from the building without being caught by, you guessed it, monsters lurking in dark corners. Other participants got to actually walk the building itself to learn the lay of the land.
But when the video game players tried to navigate the building in real life, they outperformed their blind counterparts who'd already walked through the structure -- not only in navigating the building but also in finding alternate routes within it.
The researchers next want to see how long it takes to build a mental map, how complex that map can be, and who exactly learns best from this type of instruction. Ultimately, they want to incorporate larger-scale mapping in the game's next iteration, as well as add tactile cues.
"It could be a whole new way to help blind people interact with this information and conceptualize space around them," Merabet said.