Psychology and Technology

A fusion of psychology research and digital technology has the potential to improve the lives of many people, including the visually impaired, for whom researchers are developing personal guidance systems that will allow them greater mobility. To create these devices, technology experts have worked hand-in-hand with professionals from other disciplines, including psychological scientists. APS Fellow and Charter Member Roberta Klatzky is one such scientist whose ongoing work is leading to a device that will help blind individuals walk in any location and be confident with their surroundings.

This example of the collaboration between psychology and technology was among the issues discussed by experts in psychology, sociology, medicine, physiology and technology development recently at the “Digital Frontier: The Buffalo Summit 2001,” a two-day event held in early November at the University of Buffalo. APS Charter Member Jaylan Turkkan, vice president for research at University at Buffalo, helped organize the summit.

Klatzky, professor and head of Carnegie Mellon University’s psychology department, gave a presentation entitled “Wayfinding Without Vision: Technology for Helping the Visually Impaired Navigate and Learn about Space,” as part of a symposium about recent developments in technological devices and their effect on everyday life. Klatzky currently serves as APS Treasurer.

Her presentation detailed the basic and applied research she and her collaborators have conducted for several years on personal guidance systems for blind people. She believes digital technology is essential in building these navigation systems, whose components include a location tracker, such as a global positioning system, used to track the location of a person; a geographical information system that relates a user’s position to a local map containing coordinates of local landmarks and connected paths as well as attributes of the location; and an input/output ability that allows the system to receive speech input from the user and transmit output by spatialized sound and spatial language.

“I like to think of this as a marriage of sensory and outreach, where real people are being helped by technology,” Klatzky said of her research.

Klatzky and her two collaborators-perceptual psychologist Jack Loomis, the project leader and geographer Reginald Golledge, both at the University of California, Santa Barbara-have spent recent years developing a navigation system for blind individuals using a link to the military’s network of global positioning satellites. The system allows users to walk in unfamiliar surroundings and hear a computer voice announce the names of nearby landmarks such as stores, restaurants or a park bench from the direction of the building. Since 1993, the group has streamlined the system from a pair of stereo headphones and a heavy backpack to a set of earphones and a shoulder bag.

Klatzky has concluded from their research that the system is highly effective at guidance for blind individuals and can communicate landmark locations using spatialized sound and language. In addition, she noted, people have requisite processes for learning spatial layout from locomotion within limits. Learning spatial layout while traveling has not been demonstrated, Klatzky said, pointing to possible reasons such as memory load or perceptual error.

The group plans to continue basic research on navigation processes while conducting the applied part of research in conjunction with system developers.

The navigation system is just one of the many examples of technology’s positive effect discussed at the summit, which featured sessions about the impact of technology as manifested in the arts and sciences, medicine, and education. The speakers, who represented federal entities such as Congress, the National Library of Medicine and NASA as well as various universities and colleges and technology companies, spoke about a variety of related issues including privacy, virtual reality, telemedicine and distance learning, information overload and retrieval, the gender divide in tech careers, and persons/machine interfaces. Attendees also had the opportunity to view demonstrations of new media, digital arts, and applications of advanced computing, as well as extrapolations about likely technological developments of the future.

Klatzky believes the study of the relationship between psychology and technology is a burgeoning interest for psychological scientists and will continue to grow through the establishment of centers of research at universities. One example of such a center is the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Klatzky’s own university, Carnegie Mellon University, which brings together an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty members from areas such as computer science, fine arts, social sciences and technology to educate and study issues related to computer technology in support of human activity and society.

According to Klatzky, the relationship between psychology and technology is currently studied from a broad base, focusing on topics such as interface design, cognitive tutoring, and social/emotional effects of using the Internet. But she is confident the areas of interest will expand.

“There are only a few such centers at universities now, but there will undoubtedly be more,” she said.

Observer Vol.14, No.10 December, 2001

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