By Christian Debenedetti
In a cluttered office on the third floor of the MIT Museum building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a blue-eyed woman peers intently into a small white box. The box, cobbled together out of foam board, seems a common thing. But inside it, something extraordinary is revealing itself. As the woman works a joystick, a pixilated art museum unfolds before her. A monitor to the side shows her progress as she approaches paintings and descends stairs. It's a vivid sight, made even more remarkable by the fact that the woman is blind.
Elizabeth Goldring, a sixty-one-year-old poet and visual artist, has recently added the title of inventor to her résumé. She calls the strange apparatus she's looking through a seeing machine. It uses low-cost LEDs, light-emitting diodes, to beam images of slow-moving 3-D environments past the damaged tissue of her eyes and directly onto her retinas.
Goldring has battled diabetes since early adulthood and macular degeneration since the mid-1970s, when she abruptly lost her vision. During an exam about ten years ago to determine if she had any operable retina left, Goldring was able to see an abstract shape beamed onto a tiny section of one of her retinas. Her doctor was using a scanning laser ophthalmoscope, or SLO. She asked to see a "sun." Her doctor obliged, and she could see that, too. "I was fascinated," she recalls. "I knew this was something really important."
She asked to try using it at home, but since the SLO carried a price tag of $100,000, this was out of the question.
Goldring was undeterred. She believed the technology could be adapted to give people like her-provided they have some useful retina tissue left-a chance to see something more than stick figures and test patterns. She contacted the SLO's inventor, Robert Webb, of Harvard, and, working with MIT students and doctors out of her small lab at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, she built a pair of desktopsized prototype SLOs. The latest color model is the little gadget sitting before us. It costs around $4,000.
Informal tests with ten subjects were successful, and Goldring is now experimenting with the incorporation of auditory and tactile elements. She hopes that one day a blind person might be able to use her machine to "previsit" unfamiliar places like subway stations. But she's careful to point out that the seeing machine has limitations.
"I never want to cross a street wearing the seeing machine," she says. "But if you don't know what your grandkids look like, we can do that."