'Guide vests' -- robotic navigation aids for the visually impaired

May 25, 2011
Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) software analyzes data from stereo camera views (above) to create 3-D renderings of the scene (below), and then map a path through it. Credit: USC Viterbi School of Engineering

For the visually impaired, navigating city streets or neighborhoods has constant challenges. And most such people still must rely on a very rudimentary technology -- a simple cane -- to help them make their way through a complex world.

A group of University of Southern California engineering researchers is working to change that by developing a vision-based mobility aid for the visually impaired. A design first shown a year ago is now being further developed.

The need is clear. According to the World Health Organization, 39 million people worldwide are totally blind and a much larger number, 284 million people, are visually impaired. In the United States, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, 109,000 visually impaired people use long white canes to get around. Guide dogs? About 7,000 nationwide.

"There are many limitations to canes for the visually impaired, from low hanging branches to large objects," according to Gérard Medioni, a professor in the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems at USC Viterbi. "We wanted to build an effective system that would provide new opportunities for the ."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
A totally blind subject makes her way up a corridor. The system uses Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) software to build maps of the environment and identify a safe path through obstacles. The information is conveyed to the user through a guide vest that includes four micro motors located on an individual’s shoulder and waist that vibrate like cell phones. Credit: USC Viterbi School of Engineering/Doheny Eye Institute

Medioni and his colleagues, including James Weiland, a Viterbi School associate professor of biomedical engineering who is also a professor of ophthalmology at the USC Keck School of Medicine's Doheny Eye Institute; and Vivek Pradeep, a recent Viterbi Ph.D who is now at the Applied Sciences Group of Microsoft, have developed software that "sees" the world, and linked it to a system that provides tactile messages to alert users about objects in their paths. Pradeep won the 2010 USC Department of Biomedial Engineering Grodins Graduate Research Award and a USC Stevens Institute 'most inventive' award for his work on the system.

The system uses cameras worn on the head connected to PCs that use Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) software to build maps of the environment and identify a safe path through obstacles. This route information is conveyed to the user through a guide vest that includes four micro motors located on an individual's shoulder and waist that vibrate like cell phones.

A user wearing the system, with binocular camera linked by sophisticated direction finding software to a vest that signals where to go. Credit: USC Viterbi School of Engineering

For example, a vibration on the left shoulder indicates a higher object to the left, such as a low-hanging branch, and the individual can in turn use that information to take a new path. Medioni said that canes have clear limitations with larger objects, from walls to concrete structures, and the technology will enable users to avoid falls and injuries.

The USC team tested the system on blind subjects at the Braille Institute. The users there "like the system, and they feel it really helps them," Medioni said. "We greatly appreciate the cooperation and help of the Institute and the test subjects," added Weiland.

Medioni is pleased with the prototype of the system presented at the 2010 International IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) Conference, and more recently, May 1 at the 2011 meeting of Association for Research in Vision and Opthalmology. But he and the team are now working to improve it. The current head-mounted camera is bulky, and the team is now working on a micro-camera system that could be attached to glasses. The goal is to have a new system in place by the end of 2011, he said.

Explore further: Seeing through the fog (and dust and snow) of war

Related Stories

Enabling the blind to find their way

Oct 24, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- “Eyes on the future” is the mantra of the ‘World Sight Day’ held this month to raise awareness of blindness and vision impairment. New technologies, developed by European researchers offering the ...

New device puts vision impaired in the picture

Apr 28, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Visually impaired people may soon have greater access to graphical information thanks to a new device developed by Monash University’s Faculty of Information and Technology.

'Sighted' wheelchair tested

May 17, 2011

Research on an electric wheelchair that can sense it's environment and transmit information to a person who is visually impaired, has been tested at Lulea University of Technology, Sweden. Daniel Innala Ahlmark, ...

Recommended for you

Seeing through the fog (and dust and snow) of war

19 hours ago

Degraded visibility—which encompasses diverse environmental conditions including severe weather, dust kicked up during takeoff and landing and poor visual contrast among different parts of terrain—often ...

The oscillator that could makeover the mechanical watch

Sep 18, 2014

For the first time in 200 years the heart of the mechanical watch has been reinvented, thereby improving precision and autonomy while making the watch completely silent. EPFL researchers have developed an ...

User comments : 0