The Topo-Speech sensory substitution system as a method of conveying spatial information to the blind and vision impaired
- 1. Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, The Baruch Ivcher Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Technology, Reichman University, Herzliya, Israel
- 2. Gonda Brain Research Center, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel
- 3. Center of Advanced Technologies in Rehabilitation (CATR), Sheba Medical Center, Ramat Gan, Israel
Humans, like most animals, integrate sensory input in the brain from different sensory modalities. Yet humans are distinct in their ability to grasp symbolic input, which is interpreted into a cognitive mental representation of the world. This representation merges with external sensory input, providing modality integration of a different sort. This study evaluates the TopoSpeech algorithm in the blind and visually impaired. The system provides spatial information about the external world by applying sensory substitution alongside symbolic representations in a manner that corresponds with the unique way our brains acquire and process information. This is done by conveying spatial information, customarily acquired through vision, through the auditory channel, in a combination of sensory (auditory) features and symbolic language (named/spoken) features. The Topo-Speech sweeps the visual scene or image and represents objects’ identity by employing naming in a spoken word and simultaneously conveying the objects’ location by mapping the x-axis of the visual scene or image to the time it is announced and the y-axis by mapping the location to the pitch of the voice. This proof of concept study primarily explores the practical applicability of this approach in 22 visually impaired and blind individuals. The findings showed that individuals from both populations could effectively interpret and use the algorithm after a single training session. The blind showed an accuracy of 74.45%, while the visually impaired had an average accuracy of 72.74%. These results are comparable to those of the sighted, as shown in previous research, with all participants above chance level. As such, we demonstrate practically how aspects of spatial information can be transmitted through non-visual channels. To complement the findings, we weigh in on debates concerning models of spatial knowledge (the persistent, cumulative, or convergent models) and the capacity for spatial representation in the blind. We suggest the present study’s findings support the convergence model and the scenario that posits the blind are capable of some aspects of spatial representation as depicted by the algorithm comparable to those of the sighted. Finally, we present possible future developments, implementations, and use cases for the system as an aid for the blind and visually impaired.