How Mixed Reality Technology Can Help the Blind

Back in January  2015 Microsoft announced its development of the Hololens, Windows’ holographic headset. The headset works like virtual reality goggles, however, Microsoft is seeking to integrate the virtual world with reality. Several years after the technology’s introduction, there are several exciting new applications that promise to help people navigate the world around them.

Microsoft labels their technology as “mixed reality,” allowing users alike to utilize holographic technology in a real world setting to create a “new dimension of work.” Not only does the Hololens have implications for entertainment, but developers early on implied that the device could be used for a vast range of applications that had yet to be discovered.

The Hololens has a see-through visor–holograms appear on the screen of the visor and sounds allow users to hear holograms that are behind them. The Hololens has sensors that read the user’s body and eye motions as well as the motions of objects in your environment. The device additionally features a gesture system that allows users to open apps and manipulate items that appear on the screen. Through Microsoft’s “Cortana,” voice recognition software, users can utilize a voice command system to open apps and interact with holograms.

Surgical uses for the Hololens have been in place since late 2016 but became widely used during mid-2017 with doctors in the U.S., Spain, and the U.K. using the technology for spinal surgeries, to remove tumors, and for various other surgical applications. The technology’s with its mapping systems come at a far cheaper price compared to other alternatives (each headset costs $3,000). The Hololens could replace the need for expensive CT scanning for some spinal surgeries and allows more accessibility as “intra-operative” CT scanning is not readily available.

As the technology continues to develop, developers are introducing apps are to expand the uses for the Hololens. Researchers have developed and tested  an app with the potential to revolutionize the way the blind navigate buildings.  The MIT Technology Review first reported this technology on May 29, 2018, and researchers at the California Institute of Technology have created a guiding app via the devices’ ability to map rooms in real-time.

The device also takes advantage of the audio system which can make sounds come from a “three-dimensional space.” The developers used these systems to map a “complicated” path in a campus building while implementing audio that called out directions for the user as well as telling the user where objects were around them such as stairs and railings. Of the seven subjects initially tested, all of them made it to their respective destinations.

This could have considerable implications for blind people who might now more easily navigate unfamiliar places. Technology is in the early stages, so paths have to be mapped prior to use, but this is only the beginning for this application’s potential.

Despite the promise of future applications, Some problems do exist. The field of view is the most significant issue; this is limited to 35 degrees in this first model. This inhibits a more immersive experience, as holograms can only appear within that frame. However, Microsoft is looking to address this issue by doubling the viewing window to 70 degrees. This is still small compared to some virtual reality headsets such as Oculus Rift, which has a viewing window of 110 degrees. But Microsoft plans to launch an updated version of the Hololens in 2019, which could bring expanded uses for consumers and address these issues.

Photo by Bradley Hook from Pexels

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