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Wonder Eyeglasses for the Blind
June 27, 2013   
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Is it possible to build a device that would guide the blind in the same way as a guide dog does? A device developed by a group of Polish researchers warns blind people about obstacles in their path.

The researchers hail from the Institute of Electronics at the £ód¼ University of Technology and they have been helped by engineers from the GreenPoint company.

The innovative device is essentially a pair of glasses fitted with two miniature cameras, each with a resolution of 2MPix, in addition to a sound module and a processor for managing images and data. The stereoscopic image obtained in this way helps determine the distance that separates the blind person from an obstacle. The computer program, after calculating the distance, transforms the information into sounds—acoustic “images” of the obstacles.

Low tones warn the blind person against large objects, while high tones warn them against small obstacles. The intensity of the sound makes it possible to determine how far away the obstacle is. The system relies on a kind of technology that is used in military aircraft.

The blind user of the glasses can tell from which direction the sound comes, both horizontally and vertically. Meanwhile, blind people using white canes are unable to detect obstacles that are at the height of their head, for example. An additional disadvantage of the white cane, even in the case of a hi-tech cane that employs ultrasonic echolocation and laser technology, is the need for the user to make physical movements with it to find his or her way around.

The computer program used by the £ód¼ researchers sifts the data before converting it into signals. “We want to sparingly dose out the amount of audio information for the user because the sense of hearing has a smaller processing capacity than eyesight,” says Prof. Pawe³ Strumi³³o, the project manager. A human being can consciously receive up to five audio streams at a time. Therefore, mostly signals warning the blind person about objects closest to them are emitted by the headphones. The device will require users to undergo individual training and they will also have to select appropriate sound codes.

The innovative glasses, which feature many electronic circuits placed in the frame, are designed so that the user does not feel fatigue while wearing them for a long time. They also work well in poor light conditions, even though the cameras are not equipped with additional illuminators.

The project was singled out for praise in the Polish Product of the Future competition. The device is a part of a larger program designed to assist blind people that involves the development of a signaling system based on the use of mobile phones, active tags on bus and tram stops, and traffic information.

There are about 42 million blind people worldwide, including about 90,000 in Poland. The £ód¼ researchers working on the project (about 30 in all) hope their “glasses for the blind” are only the beginning of the road to constructing a device that will enable the blind to move around on their own in an environment they are not familiar with.

For now, a prototype of the glasses has been developed. Work is under way on software that can be easily installed on a PC. The researchers hope that in the future, instead of a remote computer performing the complex calculations needed to convert a 3D image into sound, they will be able to develop a small device the size of a mobile phone.

The project has been financed using a grant from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education from 2010 to 2013.
Danuta K. Gruszczyńska
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