Wanda Diaz Merced is an astronomer at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Office for Astronomy Outreach in Mitaka, Japan. Diaz Merced is blind and uses a technique to transform data from astronomical surveys into sounds for analysis. Over at Nature, Elizabeth Gibney interviewed Merced about how "converting astronomical data into sound could bring discoveries that conventional techniques miss." From Nature:
How did you begin your work with sonification?
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Sonification has been around for a long time. In 1933, for example, US physicist Karl Jansky reported detecting the first radio waves from space, as an audible hiss in his antenna. But at some point, visualization came to dominate the way we interpret astrophysical data. When I was an intern at NASA in 2005, my mentor, Robert Candey, wanted me to create a prototype data analysis tool that would familiarize blind people with space-physics data. So we developed software that could map astronomical data into sound — its pitch, rhythm and volume. Then, in my 2013 PhD dissertation at the University of Glasgow, UK, I proved that it is useful....
Can you describe a real-world example?
There are many. Sonification can help us to study the habitability of an exoplanet, by understanding how much high-energy cosmic and solar rays interact with its magnetic field or atmosphere. Such interactions cause fluctuations of electromagnetic emission from that star system that vary in a way that relates to frequency . BBut because astronomers usually separate out different frequency components into many graphs, this is easy to miss.
We've posted several times about blind people who have learned how to "see" and navigate the world using echolocation like bats, shrews, and whales. In the video above, YouTuber Molly Burke and echolocation educator Brian Bushway, who are both blind, try to teach It's Okay To Be Smart's Dr Joe Hanson, who is sighted, the fundamentals of this extraordinary skill.
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Dan Mancina of Livonia, Michigan began to lose his sight as a teenager due to two disorders of the eye. Now he's 95 percent blind. And he's a killer skateboarder. From a Red Bull interview with Mancina:
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Can you speak a bit about your goal of helping people build more parks for visually-impaired people?
My new kind of goal I'm working towards is having a skatepark built entirely for the blind, using techniques I use, like tactile things on the ground, audio speakers within objects to help orientate yourself and things hanging from the ceiling that can help let you know where you are.
I would love to have it fully equipped with skateboards and pads to help bring blind people in and introduce them to skateboarding.
One of the biggest allures of skating is the ability to have your own freedom, choose your tricks and your style. I'd love to try to spread that to other blind people, to give them a chance to try that out.
Nearly 250 million people in the world have impaired vision. Oxsight is developing augmented reality glasses that could supplement or even replace canes and seeing eye dogs for many. Read the rest
Tommy Edison, the very funny "Blind Film Critic," who has been without sight since birth, answers the question: "Does it bother you that you don't know what you look like?"
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I watched the Bob Ross marathon on Twitch recently, where a whole new generation got to discover the magic that emerges from his brushes: how you can turn away for a moment and turn back to find a whole new world materializing across a blank canvas. The game Beyond Eyes can feel a little bit like that too.
You play as Rae, a young girl who lost her sight in an accident. After her cat Nani goes missing, she opens the gate to that leads beyond her garden and adventures forth to find her friend. Since she's blind, she—and you—have to rely on touch, sound and memory to paint a picture of the world in the blank spaces of the unknown.
If a bird sings in the distance, it'll light up a small area in the vast whiteness that cloaks the path ahead—at least until you draw closer. Gates, bushes and other obstacles often spring up in front of you suddenly, since you don't know where they are until you run into them. The world paints itself into being around you, in ways that are beautiful and surprising. Grass grows beneath your feet as you move, flowers bloom, bridges leap across rivers.
But things aren't always what they seem: what sounds (and therefore looks) like a sparkling fountain might turn out to be water pouring through a rusty sewer grate. What you thought was your cat rustling around in the bushes might turn out to be some local wildlife. Your other senses can help you paint an imaginative picture of the world around you, but until you actually touch it, you never quite know for sure. Read the rest
Blindsight is a strange phenomenon that sometimes occurs when people have lost sight due to visual cortex damage but still respond to visual stimuli outside of their conscious awareness. New research into blindsight is offering clues, and even more riddles, about how we can "pay attention" outside of what we historically have considered conscious thought. From David Robson's fascinating article in BBC Future:
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One of the first tasks (in a recent research effort) was to test exactly what blindsight patients are capable of without their conscious visual awareness – and the results have been quite remarkable. Of particular interest has been the fact that they can sense emotion: when presented with faces, they can tell whether it is happy or sad, angry or surprised, and they even start to unconsciously mimic the expressions. “Even though they did not report anything at a conscious level, we could show a change in attitude, a synchronisation of emotional expressions to the pictures in their blind field,” says (Tilburg University scientist Marco) Tamietto...
Besides mirroring expressions, they also show physiological signs of stress when they see a picture of a frightened face...
In 2008, Tamietto and (blindsight research pioneer Lawrence) Weiskrantz’s team put another blindsight patient through the most gruelling test yet... He was blind across the whole of his visual field, and normally walked with a white cane. But the team took away his cane and then loaded a corridor with furniture that might potentially trip him up, before asking him make his way to the other side.
Giant hogweed was introduced to the United States from Asia in 1917 as an ornamental plant. Pretty as it may be, it is more dangerous than poison ivy and can cause blindness if its sap finds its way into your eyes. It has recently been spotted growing along a road in Calhoun County, southwest Michigan. The county health department has warned people to "be cautious." Read the rest
“Our dog Buddy has become blind because of cataracts. My fiancé has made him this bumper harness so that he can confidently walk around the house without hurting himself!” Read the rest
Stanford researchers developed a retinal prosthesis that wirelessly transmits images from a video camera in a pair of glasses directly to a chip implanted inside the retina tissue. The innovations of lead scientist Daniel Palanker and his colleagues is that their system does away with any cable between the implant and the video eyeglasses, and buries the chip in the sub-retinal layers of the eye instead of on its surface to eliminate a kind of interference. They published their latest breakthroughs in the science journal Nature Communications. From Medical Daily:
In this study, Palanker's team from the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory placed these second-generation implants into the retinas of rats with or without macular degeneration. The researchers found that the new bionic retinas could transmit images into the minds of rats, which was observed by measuring brain activity in the visual centers of the rodents' brains.
"Solar-Powered Bionic Eye Developed By Stanford Scientist" (Medical Daily)
Restoration of Sight to the Blind: Optoelectronic Retinal Prosthesis (Daniel Palanker) Read the rest
Last October, I blogged about a Kickstarter to create "a video game with no graphics, played entirely using audio." The game is Blindside, and it's finished! Now available through the App Store for iPhone4/iPad2+. The project was inspired by co-creator Aaron Rasmussen's temporary blindness as a result of an explosion in high school chemistry.
BlindSide is an audio adventure game, set in a fully-immersive 3d world you’ll never see. Put on headphones, hold your iPhone, and face the direction you want to go. Listen as the world rotates around you and explore the darkness.
You play as Case, an assistant professor who wakes up blind, to find his city destroyed and mysterious creatures devouring people. Will you and your girlfriend be able to find your way without sight? How will you escape? Run for your life, save the girl, and uncover the mystery of the apocalypse--all in the dark!
(thanks, Joe Sabia!) Read the rest