My own love of travel incubated in the back seat of a 1969 Chevy Townsman wagon, as it racked up 170,000 miles performing numerous Homeric crisscrossings of the United States. In an era before rear-seat video, onboard Wi-Fi, and smart devices, my sisters and I mostly looked out the windows. We drank in the amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, and endless fruited plains for hours at a time.
I shudder to imagine how tedious and cruel such slogs would have seemed had any of us been blind. But Ford just unveiled a concept that promises to help blind passengers enjoy the passing scenery as well.
Dubbed “Feel the View,” this emerging technology springs from a tiny corner of the Blue Oval empire: Ford of Italy, ad agency GTB Roma, and an Italian tech startup called the Aedo Project. Aedo was recently founded by a couple of professors from the University of San Marino to develop devices that assist visually impaired people, especially children.
The initial prototype for Feel the View is a clear 9.8-inch-square touchscreen that sticks to the vehicle’s side window without obscuring the view of sighted passengers. Along the top of the screen is a control panel that incorporates a camera. To “see” what’s out the window, the user presses a button to snap an image of the passing scenery. The device pixelates this image and converts it to grayscale. This image is then reproduced on the clear touch screen by means of vibrating individual pixels comprising the image. The tiny vibrators can generate 255 discernable levels of intensity representing as many shades of gray. The darkest blacks give the strongest vibration; pure white is completely still.
The device integrates with the vehicle’s Wi-Fi internet connection and audio system to provide the user with added context for interpreting the image (the device only renders still images, not moving video). The photograph is sent to the cloud, where artificial intelligence interprets the many various elements in the scene. Then as the user’s fingers pass over various features in the image the audio system describes the image in basic terms, like “snowy mountain” or “tree.”
According to Ford Italia spokesperson Marco Alù Saffi, patents are still being filed for this emerging technology, so the parties are not yet ready to share the specifics of how Feel the View is generating those vibrations. We do know that light-emitting diodes incorporated into the screen provide proximity sensing that activates the vibration generators in only those areas of the screen that are being touched.
This certainly isn’t the first attempt at rendering graphic images on a tactile display. Disney Research developed TeslaTouch (no relation to Elon Musk’s automaker), using an “electrovibration” technology that simulates texture as a finger passes over a screen’s surface via tiny discharges of electrostatic energy. Nothing actually moves, and a stationary finger wouldn’t feel much, so this isn’t likely to be Ford’s approach. Apple has patented a haptic touch pad (indicating potential use in future CarPlay applications) that locally deforms areas of the screen by forcing fluid out through a grid of tiny orifices just beneath the surface. “Bubble displays” like this tend to be on or off, black or white. They’re great for temporarily defining buttons or ridges or producing temporary Braille text (as Bitlab’s Android-based tablet does), but such fluid bubbles aren’t going to be able to oscillate fast enough to produce 255 frequencies of vibration.
If I were setting out to design such a gizmo, I’d probably try to make piezoelectric nanostructures do my vibrating work. Of course, if I were blind, I wouldn’t give a rip how it worked, I’d just be eager to try any new two-dimensional haptic display promising this many “shades of gray” after so many years of haptic black and white.
Read more by Frank Markus here:
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