New VR Tech Could Help People With Visual Impairments

Using sound, not sight

Key Takeaways

  • Virtual reality and other technologies could help those with vision impairments process images. 
  • Italian researchers are working on a virtual reality game that translates images into sounds. 
  • A new implant for people who are blind jacks directly into the brain and could bypass eyesight entirely.
man sitting on a rock near a lake while wearing a VR headset

Iryna Khabliuk / EyeEm / Getty Images

Virtual reality (VR) could give people with vision impairments a new way to see. 

A new acoustic archery game will allow people living with blindness to experience virtual reality technology for the first time. It's part of a small growing number of experimental technological options for the visually impaired.

"VR is useful for [people with vision impairments] for the same reasons it is useful for others," Michael Hingson, of the tech accessibility company accessiBe, told Lifewire in an email interview. "With games, it provides a broader sense for playing. For other purposes, it offers an opportunity to view anything with something other than words or pictures. VR offers a totally immersive entree doorway into our world and elsewhere without one leaving the confines of their own computer."

Hitting Targets Without Sight

Scientists at the IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology) recently developed an acoustic virtual reality-based archery game. The system lets users hear virtual environments rather than see them by translating images into sound waves. 

The research goal was to understand how people with blindness move and orient themselves in space. The platform, researchers said in a news release, may be used in the future to rehabilitate their orientation skills and enable independence, as Braille does for reading and writing. The research results were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

"VR offers a totally immersive entree doorway into our world..."

"The ability to orient in space is obviously linked to vision, but the mechanisms by which this happens and the strategies used by the human brain to cope with vision loss are still unclear," Monica Gori, a member of the research team, said in the news release. "Our last research result is a further step forward in the understanding of how space and body combine to create the sense of space."

VR for the Vision Impaired

VR devices offer solutions for improving the lives of vision-impaired users, experts say. 

Eye care professionals use different kinds of optical aids to magnify images to the retina, optometrist Norman Shedlo told Lifewire in an email interview. These aids magnify what is near, such as written text, and magnify what is far away, such as signs or street numbers.  

VR technology can accomplish both of these tasks in one instrument, Shedlo said. Images can be magnified, contrast adjusted, the color changed to each patient's individual needs, and customized for each eye if needed.  

"In addition, many cases of visual impairment involve damage to different parts of the retina," Shedlo said. "There may be parts of the retina that have some remaining visual functioning. Projecting enhanced images to these parts of the retina will vastly improve the day-to-day functioning of these patients."

Aside from VR, other new technologies are in development to help those with vision impairment. The company eSight, for example, offers electronic eyewear that it says can improve low vision by stimulating synaptic activity from the remaining photoreceptor function of the user's eyes. Using a camera, algorithms, and high-resolution screens, the assistive technology maximizes the visual information provided to the brain to naturally compensate for gaps in the user's field of view. 

"eSight facilitates independent living by not only providing functional visual acuity for most tasks but also the ability to navigate inside and outside the home, independent of assistance," Brian McCollum, the chief commercial officer of eSight, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

There's even research underway on a new implant for those who are blind that jacks directly into the brain. The device uses a modified pair of glasses with a small camera. A computer processes a live video feed, transforming it into electronic signals, then a wire links the video to the patient's skull to let them "see" letters and simple images. 

"Bypassing the eyes entirely and processing signals directly to the visual cortex would be a major advance that would be able to provide patients with a type of "normal vision," Shedlo said. "A VR headset combined with this technology would be a game-changing combination. This would be the closest thing to artificial eyes."

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