Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - An innovative Israeli invention is helping the blind to recognize computer graphics, maps, and even drawings of Pablo Picasso for the first time.
It all comes down to a virtual, small-scale screen for the fingertips, built into a computer mouse.
The mouse, about two-and-a-half times the size of a regular one, enables a blind person to use touch to "see" graphic shapes and pictures, to draw symbols and graphical schemes, to read Braille and regular writing, and even play tactile computer games.
It also opens the world of the Internet to the blind, and gives them graphical access to Windows applications.
The Virtual Touch System (VTS), which integrates hardware, software and methodology, was developed by an Israeli start-up company, VirTouch Ltd.
"The exciting thing is that it really completes the blind's access to the computer," company spokesman Art Braunstein said Friday.
Up to now, blind people using computers have had to be content with reading Braille text one line at a time, or with listening to a computerized voice. A blind person can type on a regular keyboard but cannot see the result, or create graphics.
"It's one thing to sit and have [the computer] read to you, and another to work with the computer," Braunstein said.
Nonetheless, the company does not see VTS as competing with available systems but rather as complementing them.
The product was the result of four years work by two immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Dr. Roman Gouzman and Dr. Igor Karasin.
A family tragedy inspired Gouzman, an electronic engineer and psychologist, to do something to help the blind.
"It was my personal goal to invent something new for the blind," Gouzman said, after a skiing accident severely damaged his young daughter's eye.
Several years later, he and Karasin began to examine the possibilities. At first they explored the idea of developing a tactile screen.
But they soon learned that one had been developed previously in Germany - at a cost of some $400,000. One had been sold to a science museum, but it was hardly practical and the resolution was not good.
"Touch is not the same as sight, [which] is a simultaneous perception," Gouzman said, while touch is perceived bit by bit. They then began exploring the idea of designing a small screen for the fingertips, which translates the images on the screen into tactile information. This mini-screen was built onto a specially adapted mouse.
Connected to a regular computer, the VTS device functions both as a mouse and a monitor display. The display comprises three rectangles with 32 rounded pins each, to provide near the maximum limit of tactile perception for three fingertips.
On the top and along the sides of the device are eight buttons which allow the user to navigate the cursor and send commands.
The VTS mouse costs $4,000-$5,000, although Gouzman says with development and marketing they hope to bring the price down to around $2,500. The price to fit a computer with a current Braille system in the U.S. costs $10,000-$15,000.
There are some 20 million visually impaired people in the Western world and Japan - of whom only around 15 percent read Braille - and Gouzman estimated that one-third of them could use a computer. About 535,000 in America and a similar amount in Europe actually do.
The new device has been tested by more than 45 blind people in various places, including institutions for the blind in Texas, California and Philadelphia. The testers had been unanimously "enthusiastic," Gouzman said.
The Israeli Ministry of Education has already purchased 20 of the first 100 units produced for field-testing, while the remaining 80 have also been sold.