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Low-vision technology experts look to region as testing ground

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By Chris Ramirez
Monday, Jan. 3, 2011

Think of it as Google Maps for people who can't see.

Just as Google Maps, MapQuest and other route-plotting websites help drivers get around in a city, ClickAndGo Wayfinding Maps claims its special mapping technology can help blind individuals better navigate convention centers, downtown districts and train stations.

ClickAndGo maps don't stop at how to get from Point A to Point B; they appeal to a person's other senses by forecasting such things as changes in the texture of carpeting, the sounds they should hear as they walk through electronic doors and where they should feel the rush of air from subway vents.

"Imagine all the blind travelers and residents this can help," said Joe Cioffi, founder and CEO of InTouch Graphics in St. Paul, which designs and produces tactile/low-vision maps for the blind. "Sighted visitors to your city can get around independently. Why shouldn't blind people be able to do the same?"

ClickAndGo mapped several locations for blind people, including the University of Minnesota, convention centers in Chicago and Orlando, Fla., and the Higobashi Subway Station in Osaka, Japan. Cioffi is negotiating to do the same for Market Square, Downtown, hoping to become the latest company to court Western Pennsylvania as a test market for low-vision technology.

This region is an appropriate testing ground.

"The resources are here, and the (layout of the) area is pretty diverse," said Dr. Elmer W. Ebeck, president of the Western Pennsylvania Optometric Society.

Experts say Western Pennsylvania has a prevalence of blind or visually impaired people, a factor they blame on its older population and the incidence of diabetes.

"We're becoming more significantly grayer," said Dr. Paul B. Freeman, an optometrist who works with low-vision patients at Allegheny General Hospital, North Side. "You've got a population out there that meets the criteria for research. ... That adds to a viable test market."

The Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children in Oakland and the Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services center in Homestead test BrainPort devices. Developed by Wicab Inc., a biomedical engineering company in Middleton, Wis., the technology uses an experimental device that translates images captured by a camera mounted on a pair of glasses into low-voltage impulses transmitted to a blind person's tongue.

Wicab CEO Robert Beckman concedes BrainPort technology won't restore eyesight.

"Just like you can figure out a picture when someone runs their finger across your back ... we're trying basically to draw a picture on (patients') tongues," Beckman said. "That enables people who are blind to gain some perception of their surroundings."

Dr. Amy Nau, director of Optometric and Low Vision Services at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and researchers from Wicab and Carnegie Mellon University are building on the work of the late neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita of the University of Wisconsin, who discovered nearly 50 years ago that it was possible to "rewire" an adult brain. The tongue, his studies showed, is the ideal vehicle through which to pass information.

Jonathan Fister, CEO of the Beaver County Association for the Blind, said BrainPort devices, ClickAndGo maps and other advancements in low-vision technology potentially could reduce unemployment among the blind, 70 percent of whom he estimates are jobless.

Access to transportation is the biggest barrier for people with vision problems. They rely on public transportation or individuals to drive them. Many times employers don't have, or are unwilling to buy, devices that could help a visually impaired person on the job, such as scanners that increase text and fonts, Fister said.

"We've seen people who were accountants that experienced vision loss and had to leave the profession. Now, because of the new technology ... they can go back to work," Fister said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates the number of people with diabetes in Allegheny County at 79,000 to 81,000 since 2004. Experts say the diagnoses doubled nationally between 1980 and 2006.

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development granted $1 million to BrainPort studies involving civilians. The Louis J. Fox Center of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh are financing a separate study with veterans who lost sight at war.

In October, Nau received $3.2 million from the Defense Medical Research and Development Program.

"We're at a critical stage in the research," Nau said. "But we want to move past researching. The hope is that we can eventually restore vision."

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