Touching Lives: How Haptic Technology Empowers the Visually Impaired
For many of us, daily activities such as going to work, meeting friends, or banking and shopping online are familiar routines in life.
An estimated 2.2 billion people worldwide, however, live with a visual impairment, many at moderate or severe levels. For them, performing tasks that others take for granted presents unique challenges. These barriers take away not just convenience, but often, their independence too.
In their realm, the sense of touch and hearing are vital, allowing them to interact with and decipher the outside world. An alarm that marks the beginning of a day, the sound of an incoming train, the braille on a touchpad indicating street direction – these audio and tactile cues serve as guides.
Instead of making life easier for people with visual impairments, technology and a digitally connected world can, however, make things harder. Noisy environments can make it hard to get around using voice prompts. And relying on screen-reading software and sound for information can lead to misinterpreting important details and increase online risks.
Harnessing the Power of Touch: Haptic Technology
To that end, we have been working to optimize touch-based solutions to empower those with sight limitations to “see” the world. We want to create an intuitive sensory language that helps blind and low-vision people better perceive and navigate their surroundings.
Such is the basis of our haptic technology. Originally developed for use in the game of Peacekeeper Elite- think of your controller's vibration - haptics involves over 200 different and unique pulses to convey information.
Tencent Games’ MTGPA team quickly realized the potential application of this technology beyond gaming to have a wider positive social impact. It brought together key stakeholders including Tencent teams across different divisions, academia, research organizations, and community representatives to collaborate on and advance haptics across various use cases to improve the lives of people with visual impairments.
The project team created the industry’s first standardized game vibration tactile feedback system and a tactile feedback international standard, a unified solution that is compatible with both Android and iOS platforms. By 2022, MTGPA Haptics had been installed in more than 240 million smartphones.
Understanding User Needs and Benefits
Navigating the Physical World with Confidence
Navigating the physical world safely is a paramount concern for the visually impaired. Traditional aids such as canes or guide dogs can be influenced by external elements, leading to missteps or disorientation. Catching the correct bus or weaving through crowded, noisy environments can become formidable tasks.
Tencent Maps with haptics feedback addresses this challenge. By using smartphone vibrations in conjunction with voice prompts, the technology allows users to navigate physical spaces. No vibration indicates the right direction, with vibrations increasing or decreasing according to degree of deviation from the course.
Similarly, custom vibrations combined with voice alerts help users identify approaching buses or trains, and notify them upon reaching their destination. This innovation offers visually impaired users a greater sense of control and confidence in navigating their environment.
Secure Digital Access
The digital world poses unique challenges, with data input and privacy being concerns for the visually impaired. Screen-reading software, typically used for interacting with digital platforms, can inadvertently expose sensitive information in public spaces.
Tencent's Sogou Input Method addresses this through specialized haptics feedback. Different vibrations correspond to specific alphanumeric characters on digital keyboards, making it easier for visually impaired users to input information accurately and efficiently. This approach also ensures privacy protection and eliminates the need for screen-reading software.
Improving Access to Digital Information Across Formats
Visual data, such as line graphs, often pose difficulties for visually impaired individuals in accessing information. Haptic technology overcomes this limitation by enabling touch-based vibrations, allowing users to feel and interpret data. With haptic feedback, they can “view” and comprehend digital information that was previously inaccessible to them.
Staying Connected with Family, Friends and Colleagues
Knowing who is calling is a key facet of communication, but relying solely on voice announcements can compromise privacy in public places. Haptic vibration feedback discreetly notifies users of incoming calls, therefore preserving privacy while keeping people connected.
Usability testing of Tencent’s haptic technology and feedback from visually impaired users demonstrate their appreciation for such innovations. With a quick learning curve of around 30 minutes and an impressive information recognition rate of 90 percent, haptic feedback technology proves to be an effective additional solution. It expands the scope of barrier-free content, stimulates multiple senses, and creates a richer and more inclusive experience.
Working Together to Create a Barrier-Free World
The adoption of haptic feedback technology, along with open-source initiatives, will pave the way for greater inclusivity and accessibility. Tencent's open patent licensing program allows the haptic patents to be openly used for accessbility applications. It also encourages the third-party developers to contribute and get involved and improves the overall ecosystem.
While the visually impaired have been the main beneficiaries, vibration and tactile feedback technology can also assist the hearing impaired and the elderly. It is through these collaborative efforts that we can build a more inclusive society where every individual, regardless of their abilities, can live independently and participate effectively in a digital world.