Microsoft researchers develop VR walking cane for people with visual impairments

By Laura Lovett
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Researchers from Microsoft are aiming to transform the world of virtual reality from a primarily visual experience to a tactile and auditory one for people with visual impairments. 

“Traditional [VR] mainly focuses on visual feedback, which is not accessible for people with visual impairments,” the authors of a research paper on the technology wrote. “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.”

In a small trial, researchers reported that the equipment enabled people with visual impairments to navigate the VR world. 

Users are able to wear the Canetroller like a belt. It includes a break, slider, voice coil, tracker, and controller, as well as a pair of VR glasses. The device has three types of feedback: a physical resistance simulator, a vibration simulator for when the cane hits an object or drags across a surface, and a spatial 3D auditory feedback simulator that echoes real world cane interaction noises. 

In the recent paper, researchers relied on two types of analysis, including previously published work and their own observations from a formative study. The authors wrote that in the past, innovators have used auditory VR for people with visual impairments. Others have also used “smart canes” with sensors to detect objects using audio and vibration feedback, although these did not draw on VR technologies.

The formative study was made up of nine participants with visual impairments. Five of the participants were female and four were males. Participants were all between the ages of 25 to 63 (mean age, 38.7), and all used a cane. 

In the study, participants were given a brief tutorial on using the device. They then tried an outdoor and indoor VR scenario. 

Eight of the nine participants could correctly locate the objects that were present in the indoor session. This indicates that participants could build accurate mental models of 3D virtual space with the Canetroller, the researchers wrote. In the outdoor experience, six participants could distinguish traffic direction, locate traffic lights, and cross the virtual street with little assistance from the researcher. The researchers did note, however, that three of the participants had difficultly distinguishing traffic direction through the 3D traffic sound. 

The study reports that all of the participants said they felt the device's physical resistance helped them understand boundaries of virtual objects. The researchers reported that most participants were positive about the vibrotactile feedback. 

When asked what they believed to be the most important form of VR feedback, participants answers varied. Two participants said that physical resistance was the most important feedback, three participants said they relied the most on audio feedback, and the remaining four said they relied on a mix of feedbacks. 

“The user study demonstrated that Canetroller is a promising tool for [visually impaired persons] to explore and navigate virtual environments,” the researchers wrote. “With only a few minutes’ tutorial, in the indoor scenario, eight participants built an accurate mental model of the room and correctly located all virtual objects; in the outdoor scenario, six participants successfully navigated along the virtual sidewalk and crossed the street without assistance.”