VirTouch’s technology allows the blind to see through their fingertips elements like pictures, even photographs, maps, charts and tables, and flow charts – everyday things that are today off-limits for the blind.Amazing advancements for the visually impaired have taken place over the last few years. Today, blind people can do many of the same things sighted people can.

The primary reason: the power of the personal computer.

Arnold Roth, the CEO of VirTouch – an Israeli company which specializes in computer technology for the blind and visually-challenged – explains that today’s PCs and the Internet let blind people read just about any text they want, but that there are still challenges ahead.

“Text and numbers are pretty largely accessible to blind people who know Braille and are capable of working with computers. They can also hear it spoken by software,” Roth told ISRAEL21c. “But when you look beyond the text, that’s when you run into problems – things like images, photographs, maps, charts and tables. There is no solution for those elements other than printing them out using some very expensive embossing equipment. It’s not very conducive to interactivity.”

Last year, VirTouch launched a mouse-like device called the VTPlayer that is novel, unique and patented – as well as interactive, which opened the door to PC-based entertainment and learning for blind and visually impaired computer users. Now, building on the success of the original device, VirTouch is launching a new class of software for blind accessibility in the area of non-text computer images that, according to Roth, will become as revolutionary to the millions of blind Americans as Braille was.

“What our new technology does is allow the blind to see through their fingertips elements like pictures, even photographs, maps, charts and tables, and flow charts – everyday things that are today off-limits for the blind,” said Roth

It’s quite a jump for a company that has focused until now on software and games for blind children. Founded in the mid-’90s, Virtouch is the brainchild of Dr. 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.

“In VirTouch’s early days, we came along with technology that aimed to fill an entirely empty niche – entertainment for blind children. After some missteps, we’ve developed a device that addresses that need and does it very well,” said Roth, adding that as the father of a blind child, he feels a special affinity for VirTouch’s products.

VTPlayer originated as the combination hardware/software product Virtouch developed as an excellent and unique way for blind children to learn Braille and to have fun while acquiring important cognitive skills like orientation and spatial relationships. Among its many highlights is the fact that it allows a blind child to play side-by-side and at the same time on the same PC with a child (friend, sibling, parent, teacher) who is sighted.

VirTouch introduced the child-oriented product at the ATIA accessibility technologies expo in Orlando, FL in January 2003, and a European version with support for multiple languages at the SightCity exhibition in Frankfurt during May 2003. Bundled with five software applications and several utilities, it retails for $695.

“When we displayed the VTPlayer at a show in California, Stevie Wonder came by and sat down. And he wouldn’t leave. He was so taken with the product that he ended up buying the display model,” said Roth.

“Our breakthrough is partly engineering and partly psychology. The hardware – the mouse-like VTPlayer – gives blind adults and children a tactile sense of what’s happening on the computer screen by stimulating their finger tips. At the same time, smart software we have created for Windows lets their sense of hearing as well as their cognitive abilities fill in the gaps caused by the limits of their vision,” Roth said.

VirTouch’s tactile solution is silver-colored and a little larger than a regular computer mouse. It incorporates all the functions of a regular Windows mouse in addition to its unique capabilities as a tactical, immersive, multimedia device. It has an optical sensor, four thumb-operated buttons and two embedded tactile pads where the user’s fingers rest. Each tactile pad consists of 16 small vibrating pins. A standard USB (Universal Serial Bus) plug enables a fuss-free connection to any PC.

The first generation of VTPlayer software consists of a growing family of software applications for Windows, all very graphical and attractively designed, all with a spoken (using actors) and musical sound track and all with inbuilt features that reflect the cognitive psychological focus which VirTouch brings to the development of all its products.

Using the same basic hardware and software, Virtouch in the last year has focused on extending its capabilities to make it a productivity tool that according to Roth “will be no less important than a Braille display used by blind people.”

“The launch last year of the VTPlayer gave us a great platform for experimenting. During the past nine months, we have tried to think outside the box and come up with tactile ways of giving blind people access to information that has been useless to them until now – using a product that people thought was only for games,” said Roth.

“For instance, on the day Saddam Hussein was captured, I happened to be in the Pacific Northwest, meeting there with a blind entrepreneur. I wanted to show him what our technology could do. Our R&D team in Jerusalem worked through their morning (the overnight hours for us out west), creating web-pages that incorporated news-agency stories, photos and maps of the capture and made them tactile. They posted these to a private location on our website. By the time I sat down with the blind gentleman in the morning, I was able to say ‘Let’s first sit together and view something new.’ He ‘saw’ tactile pictures of the Iraqi leader before and after his shave, along with spoken and Braille text reports. His fingers explored a schematic diagram of the spider hole where the Iraqi leader was found, with spoken commentary being heard at the right moments. His surprise and undisguised excitement turned the meeting into a great success.”

Besides the enjoyment blind people will get from being able to ‘see’ photographs and maps, there are very practical aspects to the VTPlayer’s new capabilities. According to Roth, personal mobility and navigation are key issues for many blind people, and VirTouch is about to launch a tactile interface for digital map information, or geographical information systems (GIS).

“Blind people can go to the same sites you or I visit on the web and they will be able to use general-purpose maps which were created for sighted people with no allowances made for the special needs of blind people. The blind can feel what’s there and experience it in a tactile fashion,” said Roth. “That’s just what accessibility technology is ideally supposed to do.”

Another graphic challenge the VTPlayer tackles in the field of art, where blind users can see the classic with the help of Virtouch’s tactile technology.

“While it’s early to say we have commercial relations, we’ve been invited to consult to some important museums and galleries and the feedback is strong and positive. Unfortunately, many people regard the enjoyment of visual arts as ‘nice to have’ rather than ‘must have’. But art is emblematic of a larger class of things that we are enabling – making image content accessible to the blind. That’s something we can feel proud about,” said Roth.

Roth estimates that the repackaged VTPlayer with its graphic technology will be available to U.S. consumers during the summer.

“Today we sell a product that’s entertainment. Tomorrow – which is really almost today – we are extending the same techniques and technology and making important and useful things accessible that are not currently accessible to blind people. There’s nothing else out there that lets you do this.”