By Tricking the Brain, Disney’s Bringing Digital Sight to the Blind

By Jennifer Booton /
Your World Tomorrow /
Published October 11, 2013

The iconic media company that brought you “Fantasia” and the aspiring magician Mickey Mouse now has a nifty trick of its own: bringing digital sight to the blind.

New technologies being developed and studied by Walt Disney Co. (DIS) are expected to add new dimensions — literally — to touchscreens.

Think screens that not only look but actually feel 3D.

Disney researchers in Pittsburgh are hoping their advancement in this technology — known as haptics — shakes up everything from the way people shop to how the blind interact with new media.

“The brain will be fooled into thinking an actual physical bump is on a touch screen even through the touch surface is completely smooth,” said Ivan Poupyrev, director of Disney Research’s Pittsburgh Interaction group.

The digital gears turning on a digital clock might feel rigid to a user, a piece of digital paper might not only feel but write like normal on a glass screen, while the dips and valleys of a topographical map would come to life.

For the visually impaired, new developments in haptics could improve the way they interact with the digital world, enabling them, for example, to feel — not just listen — to navigation on a map.

Think what this could offer to a blind child watching a cartoon movie in the theater for the first time: they’d be able to connect new characters to their silly voices instantaneously, an ability people with sight might take of granted.

Seeing by Feeling

Teasing the brain into feeling the edges and textures of flat digital objects could open the door to a range of new apps that enhance e-commerce, video and education.

This would also add to the slew of technologies already available, like VoiceOver for Apple’s (AAPL) iOS, that help the blind better navigate today’s complex digital world. Technological advancements from Apple and Android have allowed blind people to partake in new developments in ways originally not thought possible.

“iOS and Android really did change tech in a fundamental way so we were able to use these technologies at the same time as the new versions were being developed and coming out,” says Paul Schroeder, vice president of programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind.

Now, he says, many blind people can use touchscreen devices just as well as people with sight.

Adding new tactile features such as those being explored by Disney and other companies, including startup Tactus, would only add to that, allowing them to use touchscreens even more efficiently and enhancing everything from the way they learn and consume media to how they navigate in real time.

How it Works

Using an electrovibration to change friction, Disney can artificially stretch the user’s skin as their finger glides laterally across the touchscreen surface, giving the sensation of “rich, immediate and dynamic” touch on complex digital items in real time.

The technology would attract and release the finger from the touch surface, producing “friction-like rubbery sensations” that allow the user to physically interact with virtual objects, Disney explains.

Haptics is nothing new, but the media conglomerate says its algorithm-based discovery, unveiled through a white paper this week, offers an innovative, inexpensive and lightweight technology that could be “easily integrated” into popular touchscreens.

How these haptics are developed into real-world applications will depend on the creativity of app developers and programmers, notes Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies.

However, Schroeder says groups all around the world are already trying to figure out ways to use haptics to benefit the blind. Being blind himself, he has some great ideas of his own, including the cartoon movie and navigation examples above.

Of course, Disney is confident the “rich palette of tactile sensations” brought to life by this will inspire enhancements to existing apps while triggering entirely new ones.

For the media giant, haptics could be intertwined with its treasure trove of content, adding new layers to its 3D experiences and augmenting its educational games and theme parks.

Follow Jennifer Booton on Twitter at @Jbooton

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