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Vest technology brings new hope for the blind

Sunday, July 03, 2011 - 02:18

July 4 - For years, guide dogs and white canes have helped the visually impaired navigate the world around them. Currently, engineers at the University of Southern California (USC) are developing a robotic navigation aid for the blind built from off-the-shelf components. Rob Muir reports.

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A bicycle helmet, a stereo-vision camera, a vest and a computer programme - the basic elements of what could become a breakthrough for the blind. The prototype navigation system is the creation of scientists at the University of Southern California, led by James Weiland. SOUNDBITE: JAMES WEILAND, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, USC SAYING: "What we're hoping to build here is a computer vision system that not only detect what's around them but also give them guiding cues and direct them to a place of interest like a grocery store or a coffee shop to sort of expand the environment in which they are comfortable navigating." It's a simple and relatively inexpensive system. The stereo vision camera - like eyes - can perceive depth, and sends what it sees to a computer where a progamme called Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, or SLAM turns it into a three dimensional map of the environment. SOUNDBITE: JAMES WEILAND, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, USC SAYING: "The next step is using that map to create a safe path by which the person can walk through without encountering any obstacles, and how do we guide that person through that safe path? That's where the vest comes in." Attached to each shoulder of the vest is a simple vibration motor like those in cellphones. If the programme sees that the wearer is veering off the map, it will make either one of the motors vibrate, telling the wearer to change course to avoid obstacles. A pilot experiment conducted with experienced blind cane users from the Braille Institute in Los Angeles demonstrated fewer collisions with obstacles by the test subjects when they were using the vest. SOUNDBITE: JAMES WEILAND, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, USC SAYING "We don't necessarily think that we're going to take away the cane, in fact we don't know that we want to because that's a safety mechanism and the last line of defense if you will against them encountering something. What we think we can do is guide them more naturally through an environment using both the computer vision system in conjunction with the cane." The next step for Weiland and his team is to commercialize the technology and minituarise it until it's barely more conspicuous than a pair of sunglasses. Rob Muir, Reuters.

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Vest technology brings new hope for the blind

Sunday, July 03, 2011 - 02:18