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Touchy-feely mouse breaks net barrier for blind pupils


BLIND schoolchildren are to be among the first to try out the world's first computer mouse that allows them to surf the web, play games and learn from computers in the same way as sighted classmates.

Children at 30 Israeli schools will soon be using the revolutionary "blind-man's mouse" that translates on-screen images into something that can be felt as well. VirTouch, the Jerusalem-based firm that makes the mouse, is already in talks to bring it to the UK.

In Israel, the ministry of education decided to carry out a feasibility study and place an initial order for the pound;3,200 devices that will be expanded if the study proves successful.

"For the first time, blind schoolchildren will be able to participate fully in the computer age and the classroom," said Art Braunstein, VirTouch's director for corporate affairs. "This is the first instance of what is set to be an international change in schools. The blind are usually integrated into regular lessons and the new mouse will let them follow everything.

"The teacher can scan pictures or charts they are going to draw on the blackboard straight into the computer, and the blind child can look at the same information at the same time as everyone else."

The mouse works by replacing the on-screen cursor with three rectangles which are closely grouped together and which photograph the image on the screen as they are moved around. To use it, the blind person simply puts three figers on the mouse which raises and lowers a fine system of pins depending on what image the rectangles are covering.

The mouse can read text as well as pictures, either translating the words into Braille, scanning them as pictures of the normal letters or even delivering synchronised text to voice translation. The company claims that proficient users can be as mobile on the Internet as their sighted counterparts.

Thirty schools in nine districts are going to receive the new technology within the next few months and teachers are already being trained in how to use it.

But the mouse also has huge potential outside the classroom as a tool for independent learning, an area which has been more difficult for the visually impaired because of the lack of expensive Braille translations and audio sources.

"Children will now be able to surf the web for extra information which they could not access in the past," Mr Braunstein said.

He said says the mouse is easy for blind people to use. "The blind always scan parts of an object and take in the different areas to construct the whole. And this is exactly what happens with the mouse as the cursor moves across the screen and they feel the information underneath their finger tips which they can then reconstruct as a picture in their mind."

The new technology could prove a headache for parents. The new mouse means blind children are able to play computer games for the first time.

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