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Star Trek inspires products for blind people

Mon, 07/30/2012 - 17:15 -- admin

Vicki Smith; The Associated Press; May 29, 2005

Jay Leventhal, who is blind, still fumbles with the tiny controls on his iPod but has given up on the kiosk in his New York office building that lists all the tenants. For him, even laundry has become a task requiring the help of a sighted person. The washers he uses now take smart cards instead of quarters, issuing instructions on a digital screen that he can't read.

As technology has evolved, it has become lighter, smaller and more portable. For most, that makes it more convenient. For millions of blind and vision-impaired people, it's anything but.

"The biggest barrier for blind people is access to information, and more and more information is being made available through different machines that aren't designed for people who can't see," says Leventhal, editor in chief of AccessWorld: Technology and People with Visual Impairments.

Blind people need a way to communicate with the machines that surround them, he says, from automated tellers to ticketing machines at airports.

Leventhal and other experts on assistive technology say there's no reason that can't happen. The technology exists in voice chips, image processors, cell phones, cameras and personal digital assistants.

Someone just needs to put it all together. That's the principle behind the Levar Burton Vision Enhancement Technology Center, a fledgling venture in Morgantown, W.Va., that will pair the resources of West Virginia University and Georgia Tech with private-sector partners such as Motorola Corp.

Levar Burton, who played blind Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, is lending his name and star power to fundraising efforts for the Center. It will use off-the-shelf technologies such as lasers, magnifiers and global positioning systems to develop products to help people see better.

Though he's not blind, Burton wore a visor on the set that impaired his vision by 75 percent for nearly 12 hours a day. His ‘Star Trek’ character is the inspiration for one of the most advanced devices on the market today, a set of goggles called JORDY, or Joint Optical Reflective Display.

It functions like two high-definition television sets, with controls over colour, contrast and magnification. But the JORDY is heavy, offers a limited field of view and lacks image stabilisation. And it costs about $3,000.

Paul Mogan, a legally blind electronic engineer at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, says JORDY is best suited to stationary tasks such as reading. He wants to help create special sunglasses linked to a wireless computer that can fit on a belt or in a pocket.

With a voice chip, G.P.S. and image processors, the visor could serve as a sort of on-board navigation system for blind users, calling out hazards or announcing nearby shops.

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