An electronic system developed by Aura Ganz, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, allows visually impaired people to safely navigate unfamiliar buildings using a three-ounce electronic device and a Bluetooth headphone.
The system, called PERCEPT, uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags placed throughout a building as audio landmarks. When a visually impaired person tunes into these electronic signposts with an RFID reading device, the system provides verbal instructions through the headphones. Ganz heads a research team working on the project through a three-year, $380,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Eye Institute.
Unfamiliar buildings pose a huge challenge for blind and visually-impaired people. Current training programs to help them, including at UMass Amherst, require memorizing a large amount of information for many buildings each semester, and this can lead to confusing and frustrating situations.
Ganz is trying to deal directly with the problems associated with vision impaired people and their ability to get around. She has a pilot project in the works. "We do have a basic prototype of the PERCEPT system already built," Ganz says. "It will be installed by June of 2011 in the Knowles Engineering Building on the UMass campus, where human testing will begin this summer."
At any entrance of Knowles, the visually impaired person will be able to get directions to every room in the building at a kiosk where the PERCEPT system will orient them with audio instructions. The kiosk has an outline of the building layout represented using raised and Braille alphabet. Using the kiosk, you enter a desired floor, room number or another destination, such as a restroom or elevator, to get simple directions spoken into the headset. As the user follows those directions, the hand-held PERCEPT device can scan the RFID tags that serve as signposts along the way, and further directions are relayed to the headset.
The project has been conducted with suggestions from Carole Wilson, the certified orientation and mobility specialist from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, located in Springfield. She is also helping Ganz by recruiting 20 visually impaired subjects from around western Massachusetts to test the PERCEPT system in the Knowles building. These are people unfamiliar with the UMass Amherst campus.
Its important that the test subjects have no prior knowledge of the building layout, Ganz says. "This system was created to be deployed in any building, and its geared toward visually impaired visitors who have never been there before. PERCEPT should work for visually impaired people entering any building for the first time. Our goal is to produce this technology for public buildings everywhere."
Other members of the PERCEPT research team are Russ Tessier, professor of electrical and computer engineering, who is developing the miniaturized hardware for the RFID reading device, and Elaine Puleo, research associate professor from the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, who is working on the experimental design.
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