We know of several assistive technology solutions that help blind people navigate out on the streets, detect objects for them, and enable them to perform daily actions through apps. These technologies are good for being self sufficient, however, what happens when that blind person is in a social situation interacting with others? How would they know how other people are reacting to what they are saying? Are they smiling? Still engaged in the conversation? Surprised? Offended?
How does a blind person gauge how effective their social interaction is?
Arizona State University’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing has developed a chair that enables blind people to understand social cues. The chair, that looks like an ordinary black chair at first glance, has a USB port that can be used to plug in a computer with a webcam. A blind person sits in the chair and interacts with another person, whose facial expressions are tracked by the connected webcam and a built in facial recognition system. Whenever the person’s facial expressions change – from happy to surprised to neutral, that expression is communicated to the computer, which controls the lining of the back of the chair. The lining, through specific vibrations, draws the facial expression, which is felt by the blind person. For example, if someone has a neutral expression, the lining will draw a straight line in the form of vibrations, moving from right to left of the lower back. When the person is happy or smiling, a U- shaped vibration pattern is drawn on the back.
The chair is still a proof of concept and is currently not able to detect expressions of people wearing glasses or emotions like fear and sadness. The team plans to do more studies in the future to bring in those improvements as well to the chair.
It is important to understand why social cues for blind people are important though. First of all, as listed above, it is important to know how other people are reacting to a blind person’s conversation. Second of all, there have been studies showing that social health is directly linked to physical health. It has also been found through a study that people with stronger social relationships are likely to have a 50% higher chance of survival over a period of seven and a half years than compared to those with weak social relationships. Having said that though, enhancing social cues through technology is a challenge since the general trend suggests that although newer solutions make people self sufficient and independent, they also draw a person away from a conversation and may encourage isolation. (phones and laptops for example)