Echoic Sensory Substitution Information in a Single Obstacle Circumvention Task
Accurate motor control is required when walking around obstacles in order to avoid collisions. When vision is unavailable, sensory substitution can be used to improve locomotion through the environment. Tactile sensory substitution devices (SSDs) are electronic travel aids, some of which indicate the distance of an obstacle using the rate of vibration of a transducer on the skin. We investigated how accurately such an SSD guided navigation in an obstacle circumvention task. Using an SSD, 12 blindfolded participants navigated around a single flat 0.6 x 2 m obstacle. A 3-dimensional Vicon motion capture system was used to quantify various kinematic indices of human movement. Navigation performance under full vision was used as a baseline for comparison. The obstacle position was varied from trial to trial relative to the participant, being placed at two distances 25 cm to the left, right or directly ahead. Under SSD guidance, participants navigated without collision in 93% of trials. No collisions occurred under visual guidance. Buffer space (clearance between the obstacle and shoulder) was larger by a factor of 2.1 with SSD guidance than with visual guidance, movement times were longer by a factor of 9.4, and numbers of velocity corrections were larger by a factor of 5 (all p<0.05). Participants passed the obstacle on the side affording the most space in the majority of trials for both SSD and visual guidance conditions. The results are consistent with the idea that SSD information can be used to generate a protective envelope during locomotion in order to avoid collisions when navigating around obstacles, and to pass on the side of the obstacle affording the most space in the majority of trials.