Amazing Stories – no longer science fiction!

The Amazing Stories magazine of the last century was devoted to science fiction stories of all kinds. In other words, stories of the future, and to some, the impossible. Research is making some amazing stories possible and bringing them into the present. We want to present two tales that we consider amazing.

Helping the blind to see?

With some types of blindness, such as macular degeneration and proliferative retinal diseases, a scanning laser ophthalmoscope (SLO) may be the key to a "seeing machine".

A portable device, based on the concept of the SLO, was developed that allows "people with visual impairments to watch videos, access the internet, view photographs, or just see the face of a friend."

This device is the result of the work by Elizabeth Goldring, a senior fellow at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and her team. When Goldring lost vision in both her eyes, she went to Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston where they used an SLO to test her retinas. As reported in Poet, Ophthalmoscope Find Serendipity
By Elizabeth A. Thomson, 3.8.95 Tech Talk, the SLO could bypass the hemorrhages that contributed to her blindness and project images directly onto the retina of the eye. Goldring was able to see the figures projected by the technician.

This is all at the prototype stage right now, but you must start somewhere! Goldring's team aims to reduce the cost of such a device. When an SLO costs USD 100,000, they won't be the top selling item in your local electronics store! For now, the price in the MIT team's portable device is down to USD 500, and they plan to test the machine outside the laboratory soon.

Good luck to the team!

Automatically generating user interfaces: how SUPPLE!

The story of SUPPLE, developed at the University of Washington almost by chance, is definitely an amazing story.

The short cut for people with vision is displayed in the following YouTube video:

More details are available on the SUPPLE project's website.

The first words that come to this writer's mind after reading about SUPPLE are simple "cool" and "wow" – not the most erudite, I know. The problem with poor user interfaces has perplexed many technical communicators over the years – as UUX professionals, information architects, and in many other roles where both design and descriptions (documentation) have been tweaked relentlessly and constantly in an effort to make the user experience somewhat tolerable.

"Normally", users must adapt themselves to software. This usually means that the needs of users with motor or visual disabilities are not covered. It is hard to foresee the needs of all potential users when designing the user interface. Along came SUPPLE and its automatic generation of user interfaces. Results of using SUPPLE show that the performance gap between users with motor impairments and users without motor impairments was closed by 62%!

What next?

Research stories are exciting to read, but they are often still in the test or development stage. Money, as with many things these days, seems to be one of the weakest links in the chain! However, the stories are exciting because they can open new paths of opportunity both for those directly affected and for technical communicators who can be valuable members of the development teams. We hope that more technical communicators are inspired to pursue career opportunities that involve accessibility. Disabilities do not diminish because of a world financial crisis!

Persistent Memory in Cats is Created by Doing, Not by Seeing

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Cats remember where their paws have been. Researchers from the Department of Physiology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, report that cats can create memories of their environment without having to rely on vision. Stepping over and touching a physical obstacle with their forelegs creates a memory of the obstacle that persists for up to 10 minutes even after the obstacle is removed. Just seeing the obstacle does not appear to create a memory. The study found that visual memory lasts only a few seconds.

A cat's physical obstacle memory.
A cat's physical obstacle memory.

Keir G. Pearson studies the science of walking (the neurobiology of locomotion). For over 20 years, his test subjects included mice, cockroaches, locusts, humans, and felines. He is studying how animals learn to navigate complex environments, especially when they're moving around. His research has practical applications ranging from treating spinal cord injuries to building robots. "I'm interested in the general problem of how we remember the location of objects relative to the body as we move," Pearson says.

Over a 2-year period, Pearson compared cats' working memory of their recent movements with their visual memory and found that cats remember better with their bodies than with their eyes.

We put an obstacle in front of them and we stopped the cats after they stepped over it with their front legs, but not their back legs. We found that, even many minutes later, the cat would step high with their back legs, even though we had taken away the obstacle.

Pearson with his cat obstacle.
Keir Pearson with his cat obstacle. Credit: ExpressNews Staff, Univ. of Alberta
Felines' memories may in fact be longer but "many minutes" translates into about 10 minutes for the purpose of their experiments. Ten minutes is the maximum length of time Pearson and his fellow researcher David A. McVea were able to distract the animals, usually with a bowl of food.

To compare this working memory to the cat's visual memory, the researchers repeated the experiment, allowing the animals to see the obstacle (a small wooden block) but stopped them from moving forward before they made their first step over the obstacle.

The action of moving the front legs provided the information about the obstacle and the mechanism to establish a longer-term memory. The surprising thing to us was how short visual memory was. We thought it would last longer than a few seconds.

Similar research by Pearson's colleagues on other quadripeds such as dogs and horses, mirrored his results with cats exactly.

It's like driving; if you're a passenger, you really don't remember much about the trip, or the route, but if you've actually driven the car, you'll probably remember much better, and much longer.