Despite the constant advancement in cutting edge technology, most blind people still use low-tech aids like a cane or guide dog. Combining both high and low tech, three undergraduate students from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the Technion have decided create an electronic guide dog for the blind.
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“The idea came to me while I was driving, where right before me I saw a blind man having trouble crossing the road,” undergraduate student Tzahi Simkin recalls. “I thought that if I could only describe to him, through technological means, a snapshot of the surrounding area, I would make it much easier for him and build his confidence in getting better oriented with his surroundings. I wanted to combine technological development with social assistance, and this is how this product was born.”
Simkin partnered up with two undergrads, Gal Dalal and Danny Zilber, and together the trio began working on the project. The device is based on a Kinect camera (also developed in Israel), a mobile phone application and headphones. The app deciphers the images captured by the Kinect camera and gives the user audio feedback through the headphones, warning them of obstacles and even recognizing cetain pre-programmed objects.
“The technological advantage of the Kinect camera lies in its ability to take very good depth images and that it is relatively cheap,” added Simkin. “This field is continually evolving, with cameras becoming smaller and less expensive all the time. Our project connected the depth images received from a smartphone application, to guide the blind within a given space.”
Recognizes your keys
“The camera sits on a belt and takes depth images of the surrounding area,” explains Dalal. “The wireless device processes the information received from the camera and gives a voice indication to the user through the application. The application we developed helps blind people navigate inside a building, warning them of obstacles through voice indication that identifies studies objects and directs the user to them. Studied objects refer to items such as keys or handbag that the application is previously programmed to recognize. In other words, there is an element of recognition and learning.”
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“When there is an obstacle before someone who is blind, the application warns him/her to stop and directs them right or left to bypass the barrier,” says Simkin.” We haven’t yet tested the product with blind people, but we tested it ourselves when blindfolded, and it worked. Recently, we contacted the Association for the Blind in Haifa, so that we could test the application on site from people who are blind, our end users, and obtain feedback for needed improvements.”
“Helping those in need”
“The project received a grade of 100 and has been submitted for a competition for outstanding faculty projects,” said Koby Kohai, who heads the Control Robotics & Machine Learning Laboratory at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering. “The project was initiated by students, and I instructed and steered them towards technologies currently available on the market. The concept of the project was to test a technological concept that could in the future integrate from a technological standpoint, developing hardware into something more advanced. Every year we suggest ideas for project development to our undergraduate students, coming from industry or research of graduate students at the Faculty. We do our best to provide students with a broad space with which to encourage their creativity and their ideas in their chosen projects.”
“From my point of view, we succeeded with this project,” Simkin concludes. “I am interested in continuing to develop the product, so that it can be used by the blind one day. Our motivation for the project was to help those who needed help. There are over 150 million blind and visually impaired people in the world, yet the number of technological solutions offered to them today is very limited. Despite advances in technology, the best means of guidance remains through a Seeing Eye cane or Guide Dog. Our product is not yet perfected, and we intend to continue to develop it.”