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      Was Blind But Now I Feel

      First Publish: 5/11/2004, 8:17 PM / Last Update: 5/11/2004, 10:07 PM

      Israeli technology does not have the ability, yet, to restore the gift of sight to the blind but it comes pretty close.

      VirTouch is an Israeli company which specializes in computer technology for the blind. Its CEO, Arnold Roth, described ViaTouch’s revolutionary work to Israel21c. Roth said that although text and numbers are readily accessible to the blind through Braille and software that reads text aloud, “when you look beyond the text…you run into problems - things like images, photographs, maps, charts and tables.”

      Roth said that initially there was no solution for graphic elements other than printing them out using very expensive embossing equipment, which was “not very conducive to interactivity." But last year, VirTouch launched a patented mouse-like device called the VTPlayer, which opened the door to PC-based entertainment and learning for the blind and visually impaired computer users. Building on the success of the original device, VirTouch is launching a new class of software for blind accessibility in the area of non-text computer images that, according to Roth, will become as revolutionary to the blind community as Braille was.

      "What our new technology does is allow the blind to see – through their fingertips –elements like pictures, photographs, maps, tables, and flow charts - everyday things that are today off-limits for the blind," said Roth

      "In VirTouch's early days, we came along with technology that aimed to fill an entirely empty niche - entertainment for blind children. After some missteps, we've developed a device that addresses that need and does it very well," said Roth, adding that as the father of a blind child, he feels a special affinity for VirTouch's products.

      VTPlayer originated as the combination hardware/software product Virtouch developed. It is an excellent and unique way for blind children to learn Braille and to have fun while acquiring important cognitive skills like orientation and spatial relationships. Among VTPlayer’s many highlights is that it allows a blind child to play side-by-side and at the same time on the same PC with another player who is sighted.

      "Our breakthrough is partly engineering and partly psychology. The hardware - the mouse-like VTPlayer - gives blind adults and children a tactile sense of what's happening on the computer screen by stimulating their finger tips. At the same time, smart software we have created for Windows lets their sense of hearing as well as their cognitive abilities fill in the gaps caused by the limits of their vision," Roth said.

      VirTouch's tactile solution is silver-colored and a slightly larger than a regular computer mouse. It incorporates all the functions of a regular Windows mouse in addition to its unique capabilities as a sensory, multimedia device. It has an optical sensor, four thumb-operated buttons and two embedded tactile pads where the user's fingers rest. Each tactile pad consists of 16 small vibrating pins. A standard USB (Universal Serial Bus) plug enables a fuss-free connection to any PC.

      "When we displayed the VTPlayer at a show in California, Stevie Wonder came by and sat down. And he wouldn't leave. He was so taken with the product that he ended up buying the display model," said Roth.

      "For instance, on the day Saddam Hussein was captured, I happened to be in the Pacific Northwest, meeting there with a blind entrepreneur. I wanted to show him what our technology could do. Our R&D team in Jerusalem worked through their morning (the overnight hours for us out west), creating web-pages that incorporated news-agency stories, photos and maps of the capture and made them tactile. They posted these to a private location on our website. By the time I sat down with the blind gentleman in the morning, I was able to say 'Let's first sit together and view something new.' He 'saw' tactile pictures of the Iraqi leader before and after his shave, along with spoken and Braille text reports. His fingers explored a schematic diagram of the spider hole where the Iraqi leader was found, with spoken commentary being heard at the right moments. His surprise and undisguised excitement turned the meeting into a great success."

      Besides the enjoyment blind people will get from being able to 'see' photographs and maps, there are very practical aspects to the VTPlayer's new capabilities. According to Roth, personal mobility and navigation are key issues for many blind people. In response to this need, VirTouch is about to launch a tactile interface for digital map information, or geographical information systems (GIS).

      "Blind people can go to the same sites you or I visit on the web and they will be able to use general-purpose maps which were created for sighted people with no allowances made for the special needs of blind people. The blind can feel what's there and experience it in a tactile fashion," said Roth. "That's just what accessibility technology is ideally supposed to do."

      Roth estimates that the repackaged VTPlayer with its graphic technology will be available to U.S. consumers by the summer.