Blind Opera Superstar Andrea Bocelli Seeks High-Tech Vision At MIT

Blind opera star Andrea Bocelli speaks during a MIT workshop to introduce new technologies to empower blind people to become more independent. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

Blind opera star Andrea Bocelli speaks during a MIT workshop to introduce new technologies to empower blind people to become more independent. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

What’s a young blind Italian student to do when his beautiful blond crush, Mary, approaches?

Well, if a slew of new assistive technologies now being developed at MIT and Northeastern come to fruition, the intimate interaction might unfold like this: the blind student, wearing a cutting-edge device — a smart jacket, for instance — equipped to communicate a complex array of information privately to a blind user, will be able to sense Mary’s presence, facial expressions and body language, chat intelligently with her about literature and move in to squeeze her hand when a rival suitor approaches.

The characters here are fictional, of course. But the overarching ambitions of this research, funded by the blind Italian opera superstar Andrea Bocelli’s foundation, are both intimate and far-reaching. “The idea was a huge bet,” Bocelli said today. He was speaking through a translator at a workshop at MIT to introduce the array of new technologies to empower blind people to live, study and work more independently. “To create a tool, a device, that would basically substitute itself for the eyes.” He characterized the research as going from the “impossible to the possible.”

The genesis of the Bocelli-MIT venture was a post-concert meeting in Boston several years ago, Bocelli said. He brainstormed with several MIT professors to find out what kind of technology for the blind would “be possible.” Since then, a collaborative team of cross-disciplinary researchers have developed prototypes that may someday be able to deliver critical data to the blind: everything from dynamic information about safe walking terrain and hazards, to enhancing social interactions in real-time through wearable devices or a vibrating watch with a high-resolution tactile display that can deliver important information through the skin.

“I have to be honest, the idea of this project was not born of my own needs — I am in a privileged situation,” with an entourage of helpers all around, said Bocelli, who grew up with low vision and then became completely blind in childhood following a sports-related accident. But “there are many people, some of them my friends, that are living alone in a city, and they have the issue of going to work on their own, going grocery shopping, locating the items on the shelves…The issue is really living on one’s own.” Speaking at a news conference, Bocelli conceded that one day, he might use the technology himself: “Of course, when it will come to fruition, it will be helpful to me as well — because the main problem is that humanity has people who are never happy with what they have. This technology will be helpful first for people who are on their own, but then it will come in handy for people like me, who want to be on their own some times.”

Specifically, The Andrea Bocelli Foundation says it’s given about $500,000 to fund researchers at MIT, and Northeastern to develop these technologies.

A central endeavor is called The Fifth Sense Project (seeking to replace the missing sense of sight) Continue reading

Deep Gratitude For Dying Developer Of Machine That Aids The Blind

The Optacon allows blind people to "read" complex visual material through their fingertips.

Dr. Bliss:
As so many on this list have already said, the Optacon changed my life…I thank you for your tremendous contribution and may God be with you.
— G.

This week, James “Jim” Bliss announced he is dying.

In an email message Bliss, an MIT Ph.D. electrical engineer who developed technology for the visually impaired, wrote that he has “terminated all treatment” for his multiple myeloma and “joined Hospice” after battling cancer for eight years.

Bliss developed a life-changing device for blind people that few outside that community have ever heard of. The Optacon, which Bliss created with Stanford Professor John Linvill (who first dreamed up the idea to help his blind daughter, Candy, read) looks like a clunky, 70s-era tape recorder with a cable attached not to a microphone, but to an optical sensor.  By enabling users to gather visual information through touch, the machine has been a game-changer.

Many report the Optacon is the single best device that allows for a life of independence, to learn foreign languages, become an engineer, read music or simply peruse one’s own mail.

Indeed, Bliss’s posting about his terminal cancer on a listserve devoted to the device, Optacon-L, generated scores of responses from blind people all over the world describing how the device transformed their lives by allowing them to “read” complex visual information through their fingertips, rather than with their eyes.

In contrast to Braille (which expresses letters as simple raised dot patterns) or speaking machines (which perform optical character recognition and read text aloud), the Optacon, (or OPtical to TActile CONverter) senses dark-and-light areas of ink and paper, converting them into a vibration pattern that can be felt with the fingertip and, with experience, interpreted by the brain.  Continue reading