walking stick

AI walking stick helps blind people to navigate

Image credit: CU Boulder strategic relations

A new kind of walking stick that uses AI to help people who are blind or visually impaired improve their navigation has been developed by engineers at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The researchers said the walking stick could one day help blind people carry out tasks from shopping for a box of cereal at the grocery store to picking a private place to sit in a crowded cafeteria.

The white-and-red walking stick includes a camera and computer vision technology to help it map and catalogue the world around it. It then guides users by using vibrations in the handle and with spoken directions, such as “reach a little bit to your right”.

“AI and computer vision are improving, and people are using them to build self-driving cars and similar inventions,” said doctoral student Shivendra Agrawal. “But these technologies also have the potential to improve quality of life for many people.

“Imagine you’re in a café,” he added. “You don’t want to sit just anywhere. You usually take a seat close to the walls to preserve your privacy, and you usually don’t like to sit face-to-face with a stranger.”

Previous research has suggested that making these kinds of decisions is a priority for people who are blind or visually impaired. To see if their smart walking stick could help, the researchers set up a fake cafe in their lab complete with several chairs, patrons and a few obstacles.

Study subjects strapped on a backpack with a laptop in it and picked up the smart walking stick.

They swivelled to survey the room with a camera attached near the cane handle. Like a self-driving car, algorithms running inside the laptop identified the various features in the room then calculated the route to an ideal seat.

Subjects were able to find the right chair in 10 out of 12 trials with varying levels of difficulty. So far, the subjects have all been sighted people wearing blindfolds. But the researchers plan to evaluate and improve their device by working with people who are blind or visually impaired once the technology is more dependable.

The researchers are also adapting their device to help people find and grasp products in aisles filled with dozens of similar-looking and similar-feeling choices.

The team set up a grocery shelf stocked with several different kinds of cereal and a created a database of product photos, such as boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios or Apple Jacks, into their software.

Study subjects then used the walking stick to scan the shelf, searching for the product they wanted.

“It assigns a score to the objects present, selecting what is the most likely product,” Agrawal said. “Then the system issues commands like ‘move a little bit to your left’.”

He added that it will be a while before the walking stick makes it into the hands of real shoppers as the team wants to make the system more compact, designing it so that it can run off a standard smartphone attached to a cane.

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