Israel-made devices get blind into gaming action

jerusalem | Two children sit in front of a monitor and enthusiastically play a computer game called Hidden Bombs. Each player imagines himself on a ship being tossed by high seas, surrounded by mines. To survive, the players must locate the mines as quickly as possible. If they make the wrong move, they are told, the mines will detonate.

Hidden Bombs is just like any computer game, but with a crucial difference: It is user-friendly for both blind and sighted people. The computer game, which is part of a series of educational software programs developed by the Israeli company Virtouch, provides a wealth of tactile and audio clues that level the playing field for blind competitors.

The Jerusalem-based company specializes in educational hardware and software for the blind and visually challenged. The mouse it invented, called the VTPlayer, utilizes an embedded tactile display that helps users “read” information on the screen through their fingertips. In the October issue of Braille Forum, Arie Gamliel, one of the VTPlayer’s blind testers, wrote that the VRPlayer “looks almost exactly like the average computer mouse. It has two tactile displays on top, each consisting of 16 vibrating pins. There are four controls or buttons, two on each side. It includes all of the functions of a regular Windows mouse in addition to its unique capabilities as a tactical, immersive, multimedia device.”

In his review, Gamliel, a Jerusalemite who lost his sight shortly after birth, said that the device “is easy to install” on any computer. “You plug it into a USB port, install the software and away you go. All of the games are designed from the ground up to serve a cognitive role.”

In playing them, he said, “the child gains skills in terms of understanding spatial relationships, tactile differentiation, a sense of relative direction, comprehension of braille symbols, developing a mental ‘picture’ of complexity and so on.”

Gamliel said that schools and educational facilities serving blind kids “should seriously consider” purchasing the product, despite its $695 price tag. “That’s much less than many common Playstations on the market,” he noted. 

While Virtouch is of course a business, Arnold Roth, Virtouch’s CEO, insists that those involved in the venture have a mission above and beyond the bottom line.

“I feel a real affinity for the products,” says Roth, the father of a blind child as well as several sighted children. “This company was founded to help meet the needs of blind children, and we’ve expanded our scope to blind adults as well.”

Founded in the mid-’90s, Virtouch is the brainchild of Roman Gouzman, a cognitive psychologist from the former Soviet Union. Gouzman assembled a team of software and hardware developers and actively sought input from the blind, including many children. Roth says that “there is a high degree of loneliness and separation in the lives of many blind people. Our goal is to build cultural bridges” between blind and sighted children, between siblings or schoolmates. I frankly don’t know of any other solution that allows [the blind] to be both educated and socially connected at the same time.”

Virtouch also offers several programs to help a child learn braille, as well as tactile maps of the United States and Europe.

“Many think that braille for the blind is like motherhood and apple pie,” Roth says. “In fact, it’s losing ground in the U.S. There is too much easy availability of audio, on the radio and via the Internet. We’re in danger of producing a generation of illiterate blind people.”

One entry in Virtouch’s Braille Adventure Series enables players to “visit” an amusement park where they must pick the correct braille symbols from a moving conveyor belt.

Each Braille Adventure game includes a teacher mode, which allows the instructor to modify the games features to match an individual student’s progress.

A soon-to-be released title called Crazy Biker is a simulation game in which the player assumes the role of a motorcycle rider who needs to react to threats and opportunities. As you explore the tactile map of the United States, the pins of the mouse suddenly jump up when you touch a border. When the mouse hits the ocean, the pins feel like little waves, rising and falling. As you move to different parts of the map, the audio announces the names of the states, allowing the user to integrate both audio and tactile clues. 

“You feel and focus on the tactile feeling,” says Gouzman. “Second, you verbalize your intuitive hypothesis as to which direction you’re going. Third, you actively interact with the computer,” something a blind person does not do when using a puzzle map, for example. Roth calls it “sadly ironic” that, while numerous schools and other places serving blind children have purchased the VTPlayer, the schools in Israel have not.

“Israeli government support for the blind is far behind what it is in other countries,” Roth says. “The Ministry of Education says it doesn’t have the budget.”

Information on Virtouch products:

This article was first published in the New York Jewish Week.