Bringing vision to the nearly blind

MIT fellow Elizabeth Goldring works with scientists and produces art to help the nearly blind see more than light and shadows. Images: Visuals for the nearly blind

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The head of an MIT research group has codeveloped a system that allows nearly blind individuals to see.

Elizabeth Goldring is director of the Visual Experiences for the Blind Group at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) and a nearly blind poet and artist. Due to a condition called proliferative retinopathy, Goldring sees only light and shadows.

"It comes and goes and mostly goes. I have no useful vision in my right eye. I use the machine on my left eye, which hovers around legally blind," Goldring told CNET News.com.

But using technology she helped create, she can see a Picasso line drawing, and read hundreds of words.

Goldring codeveloped a device called the Retinal Imaging Machine Vision System (RIMVS) over the last 15 years in collaboration with several scientists, doctors and MIT students. The machine allows those with vision as poor as 20/400--people who see only light and shadows in their everyday life--to read words, view color artwork and take virtual walk-throughs of architectural spaces.

The RIMVS works by projecting images directly onto a person's retina, using a light-emitting diode (LED) that passes through an LCD screen. Collimated light (light whose waves are parallel) focuses directly on the center of the pupil when a person puts an eye up to the projector. The entire system consists of the projector, a desktop computer, a monitor and a joystick.

Elizabeth Goldring
Credit: MIT
Elizabeth Goldring

"The beauty of the seeing machine is that you can load and place anything you can place on a regular computer desktop onto the machine. It's very simple. Someone without (vision loss) just needs to load it for the person with low vision," said Jackie McConnell, an undergraduate research student who works with Goldring.

The machine resembles a film projector, and to someone with 20/20 vision its images are recognizable but littered with graphical elements resembling the Benday dots of a Roy Lichtenstein "comics panel" painting. According to Goldring, a low-vision person sees the image without seeing this visual clutter.

While it is technically true that anything viewable on the average computer desktop also can be viewed via the RIMVS, Goldring says that most nearly blind people can see only simpler images. The bold rectangles of a Mondrian painting, for example, would be relatively easy for a low-vision person to see through the RIMVS. According to McConnell, it is still hard for low-vision individuals to see an entire Web page.

"Bad seeing is slow seeing, and you get too much visual info pretty fast and you can't cope if you can't see well," Goldring said, referring to her difficulty seeing complex images like Web pages via the RIMVS.

Visuals for the nearly blind

Goldring first was exposed to the idea of a "seeing machine" in 1985, when she was tested with a Scanning Laser Ophthalmoscope (SLO) machine by Dr. Robert H. Webb. Webb, the inventor of the SLO, is a senior scientist at the Schepens Eye Research Institute at Harvard University, and continues to collaborate with Goldring. He was using the SLO at the time to conduct diagnostic tests on Goldring's retina, after hemorrhaging had left her essentially blind. Goldring was able to read the word turtle. She then asked Webb to write the word sun and was able to see that, too, much to her joy.

"I do have visual experience. I have the persistence of visual memory. You lose visual memory, or it begins to erode. I was without it long enough that I realized (at one point), 'my visual memory has been eroded.' The (SLO) machine did stimulate my visual thinking," Goldring said.

Since her first exposure to the SLO, Goldring has continued using retinal projection as a gateway to visual experience. In doing so, she has developed an English-language dictionary of visual words for the legally blind.

The dictionary, "Visual Language for the Blind," consists of three- or four-letter words that incorporate a symbol into the characters to better trigger recognition. She concentrates on nouns, verbs and words linked to spatial concepts.

The word book, for example, features the image of an open book in lieu of the double "o." In addition to hundreds of these visual words, Goldring has also created animated graphics-interchange-format poems in which words and images move to further illustrate their definitions.

Beyond diagnostics
With the help of a grant from NASA, RIMVS was used in a pilot study of 10 people to determine if the machine could be a useful seeing aid for reading, viewing artwork and previewing architectural spaces, rather than a strictly diagnostic tool. The results of the study were released in the February 2006 issue of Optometry.

The participants ranged in age from 38 to 80 and had a visual acuity of 20/70 to 20/400 in their better-seeing eye. The subjects used the machine to view words from Goldring's visual dictionary and artwork presented within a virtual architectural space.

Every subject who participated was able to identify at least eight of the 10 images presented to them, with six subjects recognizing all 10.

RIMVS has also been used to create virtual architectural spaces for users to "walk" through. This reporter was introduced to a virtual museum on whose walls "hung" Goldring's own art and words from her visual dictionary.

The art, which Goldring refers to as "retina prints," consists of a featured image taken with Goldring's own digital camera layered over the image of a retina, a symbol of the RIMVS process.

With the RIMVS joystick, the user can move through the rooms as one would in a video game. Viewers can get as "close" to a painting as they need to in order to see it clearly--something Goldring said is always problematic for people with poor vision who tour actual museums.

"You can see it (artwork) in the space and then get the experience without necessarily having to be there when you see the painting. I've never been able to enjoy museums. I have horrible problems in museums because you're not supposed to get too close. You're not supposed to touch. And I am obviously not a big label reader," Goldring joked.

The technology is costly. The machine that currently sits in MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies was donated by Canon, but would otherwise cost $100,000, not including service repairs. (Goldring's work is also partially funded by Apple Computer.) This currently prohibits regular personal use of the device among people with low vision.

What, then, are Golding's plans for the technology?

"To build a robust color-seeing machine, make a prototype and get it in to the hands of people who can use it," she said.

And, she added, she hopes the research will help expose the issue to future technology developers and designers.

"I am hoping to make more students at MIT aware of people who don't have good eyesight. Because those are the people with eyes and they will ultimately be the developers and designers of technology," she said. "All those new iPods and cell phones, all that designers do and they don't realize that people with low vision cannot use them. But I know the students who work with me end up having a sensitivity to people with low vision that I don't think they'll forget."

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