An Acoustic Map for Visually Impaired People



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A new system developed by researchers at the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia (Spain) could present a substantial step towards blind users’ autonomy. The device, which aims to help visually impaired people avoid obstacles in their way, was presented at the 2011 Innovation Convention organized by the European Commission at the beginning of December 2011 in Brussels.


Under the name EYE 2021, this visual augmentation system transforms 3D information into an acoustic map as received by the glasses, generating sounds which represent different obstacles. The sounds are emitted as a sequence of clicks which the user perceives as coming back from the object’s surface. This serves as a warning that something could fall or be hit.


The idea is based on “echolocation,” a phenomenon from the animal world that works by emitting calls and listening for echoes produced from various objects in order to gauge their distance.


To function, the EYE 2021 requires a microcomputer, headphones and light-weight glasses that include the vision system’s micro cameras. Guillermo Peris-Fajarnés, Director of the Graphics Technologies Research Centre (CITG) of the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia and the Project Manager, compared it to the Kinect 3D motion detection system for the Microsoft Xbox 360. In both cases, an environmental detection process is established in three dimensions.


As such, every blind person using it could immediately detect the obstacles in his or her way, while a trained user would be able to create a “visual map” from the surroundings. However, Peris-Fajarnés pointed out the fact that the system isn’t intended to substitute for a cane or a seeing-eye dog. “Its only objective is to augment already existing systems to improve independence and provide the blind users with a complementary system,” he stated.


In the near future, the researchers are planning to develop more modules allowing, for instance, reading, spatial location and facial recognition. Also, they are currently working on the possibility of training sessions, a point, according to the director which “is not easy.” At this point, they are testing the first EYE 2021 units on blind people.


Jonathan Chacón, Accessibility, Usability and New Technologies Manager and Consultant at Technosite, could be one of the next. In his opinion, even if there are couple of similar projects in England and in the US, “this looks to be more interesting in the test phase with blind people in that it appears to be a more usable product.”


The opinion that Chacón made from this device after analyzing it from a theorical point of view is positive.


“It looks like a product with a lot of potential on the market and it could be an ideal travel friend for the blind person’s day to day activities,” he said. “It doesn’t intend to be a cane or dog’s substitute for sure; the efficiency of these two methods has already been demonstrated for blind people’s daily use,” he added. However, Chacón thinks that “it can cover some of the two methods’ terrain exploration gaps.”


On the other hand, Chacón believes that the EYE 2021 “doesn’t look to be too intrusive in respect to a blind person’s situation,” even if he thinks the glasses could be rejected by some of the users who are accustomed to using their own or who could feel uncomfortable using glasses.


Chacón thinks the current version would be limited to use in the street or in unknown buildings, but the possible additions to support facial recognition and reading could justify the use at home and at work. He also thinks that the device should include assistance for routes via GPS or any geolocation systems allowing the user to be totally autonomous in order to navigate unknown routes.


One of the most noticeable EYE 2012 defects, according to Chacón, is the permanent use of a headset.


“Covering the ear canal for blind people is preventing them from necessary information to move.” He offers an easy solution: using incorporated headsets, making access to the acoustical information without covering the ear.

Another drawbacks highlighted by the Consultant is the device’s autonomy, as “it can be very dangerous for a blind person to receive untimely or wrong information or if the device’s battery starts failing.”


He added an additional negative point: as it is based on echolocation, the system wouldn’t be suitable to deaf-blind people or with compromised hearing, who “are numerous within the blind population.” To solve this, Jorge Martínez, Engineer in Supporting Technology for People with Disability in the BJ Adaptaciones Company, suggests that the system could also use vibrations.


In addition to the functional extensions commented on by Chacón, Martínez thinks it could be interesting to add a QR code recognition system (substituting bar codes) to access the environmental information. “Thus – he explained – by being closed enough to things such as labels, posters, etc., the device could decode the text and reproduce the message through an artificial voice.”


In any case, Martínez and Chacón highlight the system’s advantages and usefulness. “The technologies associated with the device are in a boom, thus it is evident that the system will enjoy continued improvement,” pointed Chacón. According to him, this flexibility is one of its best benefits, as it helps to “use the system’s functionality in any place or occasion.”


Eye 2021 is a new concept of a previous project called “CASBLIP,” which ended in 2009, and demonstrated the possibility of helping blind people by using acoustic maps. That system wasn’t affordable enough to be miniaturized as it used laser ranging instead of video mapping. The first Eye 2021 units are planned to be made available in March 2012 and the commercialization is planned for this summer.


This article has initially been posted by Esther Paniagua and Lena Baudo on January 3rd, 2012 on Opinno's blog (Open Innovation) and in the Spanish version of MIT’s Technology Review magazine. You can find it at: www.technologyreview.es


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