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.