Excerpted from “Diary from the Orient”

December 8, 2006


Okay, now to tell you about the research.  First of all, Professor Masaki Tauchi was inspired to get into research about blind people and accessibility when his mentor, a blind professor, died.  The research they are doing is very practical and can be used in the U.S., but I'm embarrassed to say that I hadn't known about most of it -- they publish in a Japanese journal of ergonomics, and I encouraged them to get it published in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness as well as traffic engineering journals, they're doing lots of good things and I know the JVIB editor would welcome it and Americans would be very interested.


For example Professor Takabun Nakamura showed me the lab where they are striving to learn how the truncated domes on surfaces can be detectable to blind people and yet minimize the vibration for people in wheelchairs.  They have a couple dozen wheelchairs, and sensors to measure vibration in the chair and on the person's body. They are also studying how much of a drop there must be for the blind person to know that there is an edge of the street beyond the detectable truncated dome surface (because the truncated dome surface that we use exclusively for detectable warning surface is EVERYWHERE in Japan and throughout the Orient, the surface is not, by itself, an indication that there is a street there).  They have also developed a guide strip for the crosswalk and are measuring how much it loses in height over time.  I got a chance to try out the strip after dinner in Okayama – Masaki keeps a supply of canes and umbrellas in his car, and says he often has several wheelchairs also!  At first I was unable to detect the strip with the cane, but with practice I could follow it.  And they are studying alignment strategies and how effective they are – surprisingly, the strategy that the subjects felt most confident about (sliding or stepping their foot on the detectable strips), was the least effective.


Professor Atsunori Fujii has come up with a clever way to have subjects report the direction that they think they hear sounds.  A common way to measure this is to have them turn their head to face the sound, and a device on their hat reports the angle of rotation, but Professor Fujii came up with an idea that is much more precise.  They have a table with an opening where the subject sits with the table surrounding the front and sides, with tactile lines on the table (made out of uncooked spaghetti!) radiating from the subject toward potential sound sources, and the subject just has to show which line is aimed toward the sound.  Stephan and I played as subjects and I very much liked being able to express my input on the direction of the sound by placing my hand on the table in that direction and following the line toward where I heard the sound. Cool!  They have finished the research and presented a paper which was very well received, and it will be published soon.


Professor Tauchi had asked me to speak to his students [photos], and I prepared something after I had a chance to meet a few of them and find out what they are interested in.  He helped to ensure that the students could understand -- he showed me how to prepare a powerpoint (they can understand English better by reading it than hearing it) and interpreted the parts that might be difficult to understand.  We were disappointed that we couldn't figure out how to show the video of deaf-blind travelers that I had arranged to have there, but hopefully the students can look at it later.


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