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Robot Vision May Help Direct the Blind

For the blind, a cane can be useful, but robot vision may be even better. Engineers at the University of Southern California are taking the tools that give robots sight, and using them to help direct the blind around potential obstacles.
/ Source: InnovationNewsDaily.com

For the blind, a cane can be useful, but robot vision may be even better. Engineers at the University of Southern California are taking the tools that give robots sight, and using them to help direct the blind around potential obstacles.

It helps to think of a robot as a blind chunk of metal. It doesn't "see," per se. It uses the information collected by computer vision software to make judgments about its environment. Right now, the most sophisticated vision software robots use is called simultaneous mapping and localization (or SLAM). Two cameras feed information into the software, providing a stereo image that conveys a depth of field similar to human vision. By mathematically comparing the two images, the system constructs a map of its surroundings.

"It's constantly updating itself as the camera moves through the environment," said James Weiland, a vision researcher and biomedical engineer at the University of Southern California. "We said, 'let's build a prototype system that's good enough to test in blind people.'"

Weiland and his colleague Gérard Medioni, a robotics professor at USC, began wondering whether blind people could learn to navigate using computer vision tools. When a person looks around a room, he retains all of the information he picks up from different angles and perspectives. The most recent versions of SLAM do the same thing.

To test the possibility of using the system to assist the blind, the researchers rigged the computer vision system to a specially designed guide vest. A pocket on each shoulder of the vest housed a small motor that vibrated as a directional signal. Ten blind people, wearing these vests and stereoscopic cameras strapped to their heads, then attempted to navigate a simple obstacle course. The vibrations were their only guide.

In general, the participants did better with the vest than with their canes, Weiland said. Shoulder vibrations are only one way to communicate with the blind person wearing the vest. Weiland is currently speaking with members of the blind community to help brainstorm other, more elegant ways to do it. Instead of a vest, the person could wear a glove, or the system could communicate verbal commands through an earpiece.

Of course, considering how quickly robots are advancing, maybe they should just wait for the cybernetic guide dog.

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