SENSE 2.0 – Back to blogging

Hello again! I am back to writing and posting thoughts on science education as a non-sighted experience. I didn’t give up on it after my first try in July last summer but had to take a bit of break. In any case, I am not the “giving up things” kind of person. I eventually want to, and also have been told a few times that I should, write a book. On what theme, in what language I haven’t quite decided yet, but it is on the to do list. So blogging is a sense (not that SENSE), is a trial to have a feel what writing feels like. 
I liked it when started SENSe 1.0, but always spent too much time thinking on how to phrase my thoughts. Amount of time which made most post a bit artificial, they were not too spontaneous. So now, in this new addition, I’ll try to think less while writing, and simply project my chain of thoughts from that particular day or week. Of course that does not mean I will write all kind of rubbish without thinking but surely you get what I mean. If not, comments or the “unfollow” option is there for you.
Also, since the last blogpost, I’ve got a new machine to type on, which makes reading and writing, as well as posting more convenient, so that should help delivering my messages, questions, comments, insights to various aspects on education and sight loss. What didn’t help on the other hand, is that during the past half year, my way of seeing fundamental science and its teaching and researching has changed. Not only that but just as well, my understanding of what I could do with my life, how I could make real change, help others if they need it or how we could benefit the most from academic research and the dirtier commercial, business world has changed a lot. Thus, I thought I need to clear things in my mind first, only than write about them. Beyond all, I explored and learnt about new fields of science, new ideas I never heard of before, which all made me highly passionate about those. It isn’t a secret, I am talking about sensory substitution and tangible computing mainly. But more about these in a more specific post.
Now I am only writing to say hello again and get back to writing. I know there used to be a being we call Jesus in a particular language, in a particular culture and religion, and it only took him to get back on track in 3 days, and not 7 months or so as I happen to do, but hey ho, at the end it is Easter! Hence SENSE is back.
With varying regularity I am going to share some thoughts, some progress around our R&D projects, thoughts on other people’s work in context of science education and sight, PR work, business work, our new services and products, websites, news and anything else that might interest me. 
Take care.

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Functionality vs. esthetics, Sensory substitution vs. sensory augmentation

As I was reading through the weekly product of some of the mailing lists I am signed up for, a news letter sent by the National Federation of the Blind caught my attention. More precisely a statement quoted from the NFB’s president at a recent talk is what raised my curiosity the most. The assertion goes like this:

Low expectations stand between blind and sighted people, and not the blindness.

Now it is not entirely clear to me what the president of the organisation referred to. Is it the low expectation of blind people respect to the quality of the assistive technology made for the blind community, is it the low expectation of sighted people respect to the abilities of what their non-sighted peers can accomplish, or perhaps it is something completely different.

For the time being, let’s leave prejudice aside, and instead concentrate on technology and the blind point of view as most of the time this blog is going to do. Yesterday I participated in an interview set up by a sensory substitution researcher at the University of Sussex. We had a conversation about a number of things, including life before and after blindness, evaluated 5 different assistive tools, 3 sensory substitution tools they are developing at the moment, and also rated each of these devices in terms of usability. We explored aid utilities all together supporting navigation, everyday tasks such as reading, cooking, communication and of course spent a small amount of time on science accessibility.

Before heading on, here is a BBC Click episode introducing a sensory substitution device being developed in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.
BBC Click 23 05 2015 8-12 min

One spot of the interview took a fascinating direction of thoughts. I was trying out a tablet device which converts  colours to sounds. Colour has always been a difficult question when considering blindness. One might ask, just as my interviewer did, how useful such a tablet would be? My response to these type of questions is usually that colour-to-audio transcription has many beneficial aspects for those who are unable to distinguish segments of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. It is enough to think about coloured pie charts or three different curves plotted on a graph with varying colour labels. Colours very often have a significant functionality. We don’t even need to think about abstract concepts such as the pie chart but simply consider the scenario of a man walking down the corridor. It is the colours that help the man to find the door he is looking for. The yellow rectangle within the white ribbon next to him. Of course this is an idealised situation, since in real life we have many clues to help us, such as office labels, handles, door frames and so on. Colours don’t only function as navigation aids in finding certain units standing out of a larger element but colours also have very strong symbolic connotations, for instance national flags, traffic lights, symbolism attributed to black or white etc. Without colours we would lose many of our skills very quickly. However, colours don’t only have functions, they also have esthetic values. Most people tend to agree that some colours are calming, others are depressing, other ones are motivating. I can go further than that, just think about arts, especially visual arts. We don’t appreciate paintings because they are useful but because they are visually appealing.
So when it comes to converting graphics and colours to sounds, we need to ask whether we want to convey the information carried only, just the beauty or both at the same time. Do we want to offer visually impaired, colour blind, non-sighted people only the functional factors of colour or the esthetic component of it as well? Do blind people need the esthetic features? Should they be satisfied with accessing useful information and put aside their other needs? When looking for the answers of the above proposed questions, in fact we are exploring the questions of sensory augmentation and sensory substitution. Do we require the extension of our hearing in a manner that we are going to be able to hear colours as their frequency equivalence and match colour names with pitch values, in which case we are more likely to talk about sensory substitution, or we strive to hear the full range of characteristics a colour can provide, possibly with more conscious understanding than natural sight can serve with, in which case we can consider basic sensory augmentation. This is a matter of choice and expectations on the first place.
The idea of functionality vs. esthetics can be generalised for not only colours but a wide range of other things, for example assistive technology. Do we want speech synthesis to only read a book for us doing the job it was made for, or do we have higher standards and wish the synthetic voice to imitate dialogs, emotions, speak clearly and not like a 60s sci-fi robot?Do we want many devices doing various independent tasks, with no appealing design at all, or we prefer a fashionable gadget which can do multiple tasks adjusted to individual needs? Do we really want to carry braille transcribed magazines as giant books instead of air light paper copies or tablets? Most of these and similar issues are already addressed and with enough attention and effort we can hopefully achieve good progress. However, wouldn’t it be desirable to have non-visual access to advantages a blackboard has, a pen and paper can do, a sketch-pad can offer when it comes to noting equations down in an array, rearranging parts of these equations, sketch graphs on the fly without major time investment in plotting a tactile figure? Do we want to teach disabled kids only the pure and dry facts, mathematical tools or shall we show them all the exciting phenomena in nature, funny and easy to remember, outreach like experiments, demonstrations?
So back to where we started from, the low expectations. Do blind people expect only to be able to have access to science education up to a certain level, enough to be able to learn a certain field of science and become a professional, or is it a fair expectation to ensure a joyful and equally comfortable way of acquiring scientific knowledge and experience?
I shall emphasise at this point that although I have a solid opinion on most of the questions asked here, I don’t necessarily know the correct answers, if there are any at all. Though I don’t have exact solutions yet, sometimes it is more difficult and even more essential to ask the appropriate questions.

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To see, or not to see.

Elaborating on the enthusiastic words of yesterday’s post, the thoughts I have in mind today are as projected below.
Even though studying and pursuing science can be difficult for people with various different disabilities, my special interest and focus at the moment concentrates on the visual aspect. Nature, and hence science is a rich set of  stimuli, most of which humans are tuned to perceive using their eyes.  Though libraries could be filled up with tons of books written on what vision is, technically speaking it is just a light-to-electricity transducer. Photons reflecting from surfaces collide with the retina, producing the signal our brain can process and forward to the “office” responsible for making decisions. This however, does not always work. If there are no photons to reflect, if there are no surfaces to reflect from, or if there is no retina to detect the incoming light. This can happen if you are blind, this can happen deep underground or in a case of an idealised black body with emissivity 0 for instance. Obviously, there are many more situations where vision can fail.
As already mentioned, my goal is not to create assistive ways of doing certain things but I want to teach human kind how to see without using our eyes. I don’t yet know how to do it, I only know this can be done if we give it a bit of effort and creativity. I want to teach a new skill to men, analogously to how we learnt to fly, how we can stay at the top of oceans, how to communicate over distances of the scale of the Solar system and so on. Why would the ability of seeing in the dark be any different from the forth mentioned skills? It isn’t, and we already made some progress by developing infrared cameras, X-ray technology, tactile figures, auditory descriptions etc. As the early example of Braille developing his system of communication in dark for the armed forces, we can continue to explore the numerous ways intelligent beings can access information. We are still a vision dominated culture because we didn’t find any equally sophisticated way of looking at the world surrounding us.
Two potential ways to take are computer vision with artificial intelligence or sensory substitution. None of these concepts are developed enough to serve as natural vision but with time and further knowledge one of the two will fulfill its premise . 
It is important to recognise the necessity of substituting natural vision not only to cope with blindness as we know it today or to overcome situations in which we can not rely on our eyes but also because nobody can guarantee  we always are going to see. If it wouldn’t be clear what I am suggesting here, I recommend you reading “The day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham. Although the novel probably qualifies to be science fiction, I never really thought why this couldn’t happen in reality. Not very likely indeed in the exact form as it has been described in the book but a variation of the theme is not unimaginable.  It is not a fancy tool that we desire by seeing in the dark but rather an essential skill to survive.
I have talked to a fair few people who lost their sight later in life and we can safely assert: the change of circumstances is enormous and is extremely challenging to cope with, to adapt, to get used to. Therefore the ultimate objective is to establish a stage of evolution in which it doesn’t really matter if you lose your sight the next day or not.

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