Video games could help blind people

By Meredith Rutland • Published: December 12th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Finding your way around a new university or mall is hard enough. But for people who are blind, every corner presents a new challenge.

Now, researchers have come up with a new way to help blind people memorize the layout of buildings … video games.

At the Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts, blind participants sat in front of a laptop and put on headphones. In front of them was a digital labyrinth full of hallways, doorways, furniture and — in the spirit of video games — jewels.

Furniture “pings” when it’s bumped into. Jewels twinkle and get louder when you’re near them. Doors knock and monsters, another obstacle, get louder as they creep closer.

After about a half hour of gameplay, participants were led to a building that was an exact replica of the video game layout. They were able to find exits quickly and could navigate around the room naturally, even though they had never set foot there.

The game teaches users how to move around the room and find another exit if one is blocked off. Experts say this type of learning, which builds mental images, is better than rote memorization.

The research started as a simulation of the video game DOOM, where players experience the game from the character’s perspective. Researchers are also working on making a version based off of the game Legends of Zelda, which has extensive maps that stretch across a virtual land. They plan to mirror the game off of the entire campus of the Carroll Center for the Blind.

Getting a better feel for the layout of a building wasn’t the only benefit, either. Researchers said participants looked like they were having a lot of fun playing the game. At the end of their time, they’d beg for five more minutes to finish the level they were playing.

It’ll take more study, but researchers hope games like this will give folks without sight a glimpse of their surroundings.