Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have developed a smart walking stick that can assist blind or visually impaired people to navigate their environment, from grocery shopping to finding a seat in a busy café. The system employs cameras to visualize the environment and items within it, such as products in a supermarket, and uses AI to identify objects and provide guidance for the user. The stick can provide verbal and haptic prompts to help the user to move closer to a desired product on a supermarket shelf, for example. The researchers hope that the technology will assist the visually impaired in gaining more independence when performing everyday tasks.
Assistive technologies are a huge deal for those who benefit from them. Empowering someone to lead a more independent life can pay dividends in terms of enhanced mental health and in freeing up healthcare and social care resources that can be used elsewhere. This latest assistive technology uses recent technological advancements in self-driving cars to help the visually impaired in performing everyday activities.
“AI and computer vision are improving, and people are using them to build self-driving cars and similar inventions,” said Shivendra Agrawal, a researcher involved in the study. “But these technologies also have the potential to improve quality of life for many people.”
The stick resembles a standard cane, but also includes cameras that can employ computer vision techniques to map out the surrounding environment. The device uses AI to make sense of what it is seeing. A user can specify that the technology help them to achieve a certain task, such as finding an empty table in a restaurant.
“Imagine you’re in a café,” said Agrawal. “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.” So far, the researchers have tested this application in a mock café with blindfolded volunteers, and after surveying the scene with the stick, the technology calculated a route to the most suitable seat and guided the users to it.
Other applications involve identifying particular products on a supermarket shelf, allowing users to choose their shopping. “Our aim is to make this technology mature but also attract other researchers into this field of assistive robotics,” said Agrawal. “We think assistive robotics has the potential to change the world.”
See a video about the technology below.
Study in 2022 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems: A Novel Perceptive Robotic Cane with Haptic Navigation for Enabling Vision-Independent Participation in the Social Dynamics of Seat Choice