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December 17, 1999

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Head-Mounted Displays Help Visually Impaired Students "Mainstream"

Head-mounted displays may help visually impaired children get more out of school and life in general, according to a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins and the Maryland School for the Blind.

Head-mounted displays are the most high-tech tools to improve sight for people with uncorrectable vision loss or "low vision" caused by conditions such as macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetes. These helmet-like devices often compared to the sight-restoring headgear worn by the Geordi LaForge character in "Star Trek" contain one or more miniature video cameras that wearers use to magnify and control contrast. Because most vision-impaired people are elderly, the devices were designed for and tested primarily by adults. The research team wanted to evaluate the helmets' performance for children.

Ten students ages 12 to 21 at the residential Maryland School for the Blind tried the three available head-mounted displays. The children wore the devices in class for reading and for looking at a chalkboard, at their classmates and out the windows. For many of the students, it was the first-ever glimpse of anything more than a few inches away from their face.

Some of the children also tested the helmets during orientation and mobility training, when they were learning safe walking and navigating skills. Instructors had students use their device to walk around, look in cupboards, climb and descend stairs and go outside after dark.

The results, published in the August issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, showed that all three head-mounted displays improved the students' visual acuity and contrast.

"More importantly, we found that students enjoyed using the devices," says study coauthor James T. Deremeik, education/rehabilitation program manager at the Lions Low Vision Center at Hopkins' Wilmer Eye Institute. "Their favorite activity was zooming in and out on their classmates' faces. This is important educationally, because seeing facial expressions, observing body language and making eye contact all contribute to effective communication."

Vision-impaired preschool children and a wheelchair-bound student who tried the helmets all showed better visual attention, more awareness of their environment and curiosity about what they were seeing.

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