VR is drastically focused on sight. Whole experiences are built around immersing the eyes in headsets to explore virtual environments. Now it appears that Microsoft is working on a cane controller that could someday allow visually impaired people to explore new worlds.
The project is still in development, but the “Canetroller” can overcome the need for visual cues by alerting the user with sound, vibration, and a more tactile experience, like using a white cane to navigate.
“Traditional [VR] mainly focuses on visual feedback, which is not accessible for people with visual impairments,” said the authors of a research paper on the new technology. “We created Canetroller, a haptic cane controller that simulates [assistive] cane interactions, enabling people with visual impairments to navigate a virtual environment by transferring their cane skills into the virtual world.”
The project is paired with the HTC Vive, allowing for the users head motion to be tracked. Then they wear the Canetroller like a belt. The users hold a cane with a Vive tracker attached. The Canetroller will then vibrate when it hits a virtual object and can also detect changes in environment texture. There is even a brake that stops cane motion from moving through horizontal or vertical surfaces.
The virtual environments and stimulus are still fairly simplistic — trash cans, walls, tables — but these ordinary scenes can help create real-world effects for those with visual impairments.
“It can be used with students who might be nervous about crossing a particularly busy street. ‘Let’s try it this way first… without having the risk of hitting by [a] car,’” said an orientation and mobility instructor working with Microsoft on the study.
There is still a lot of room for growth.
“I didn’t have a good sense of direction where I was at [in the real world],” said a participant in the audio modeling. “I can hear roughly where the wall is at, by the way, it blocks off sound in the real world. I didn’t have that in the VR world.”
But, it is also an exciting step for expanding VR to include those with visual impairments.