Software developed at Tel Aviv University can help the blind and visually impaired maneuver through unfamiliar three-dimensional environments. Dr. Orly Lahav of TAU's School of Education and Porter School for Environmental Studies invented the new tool, which is connected to a joystick that interfaces with users through the sense of touch. Today the visually impaired are very limited in their movements, which necessarily influences their quality of life, says Lahav, but this solution could help them find new options, like shorter routes from train or bus stations to their homes. Users can can feel tension beneath their fingertips through the joystick as they navigate around a virtual environment. The joystick stiffens when the user meets a virtual wall or barrier. The software can also be programmed to emit sounds such as phones ringing when the explorer walks by a reception desk. Exploring 3D virtual worlds based on maps of real-world environments, the blind are able to "feel out" streets, sidewalks and hallways as they move the cursor like a white cane on the computer screen. Before going out alone, the device gives them the control, confidence and ability to explore new streets. It allows people who can't see to make mental maps in their mind. The software becomes a computerized "white cane" for the blind, according to Lahav. "They get feedback from the device that lets them build a cognitive map, which they later apply in the real world. It's like a hi-tech walking cane," she said. "Our tool lets people 'see' their environment in advance so they can walk in it for real. This tool lets the blind 'touch' and 'hear' virtual objects and deepens their sense of space, distance and perspective." "They can 'feel' intersections, buildings, paths, and obstacles with the joystick, and even navigate inside a shopping mall or a museum in a virtual environment before going out to explore on their own." The tool transmits textures to the fingers, and can distinguish among surfaces such as tiled floors, asphalt, sidewalks and grass. In theory, any unknown space, indoors or out, can be virtually pre-explored, said Lahav. The territory just needs to be mapped first, and with existing applications like GIS (geography information system), the information is already there. Called BlindAid, the tool was recently unveiled at the Virtual Rehabilitation 2009 International Conference (held at the Carroll Center for the Blind, a Newton, Massachusetts rehabilitation center). There, a partially blind woman first explored the virtual environment of the center, the campus and 10 other sites, including a four-story building. After just three or four sessions, the woman was able to effectively navigate real-world sites wearing a blindfold.