From Machines that can “See” to Aiding the Visually Impaired
Finland’s VTT Technical Research Center is developing a short-range radar wearable that could very soon be used in outdoor settings to guide the visually impaired. The Guidesense device is worn on the chest like a heart rate monitor, and it aids users by alerting them of potential obstacles. It functions through short-range millimeter wave sensing, which has also been applied in devices ranging from self-driving cars to airport security scanners. It’s a logical next step that, if successful, could help an estimated 300 million people worldwide.
VTT claims that Guidesense can detect most obstacles, with the exception of some objects such as small bushes and narrow branches. Guidesense is not the first wearable developed to help the visually impaired. “SpiderSense” perception suits and wrist-mounted sonar devices, among others, have also been proposed as viable tech aids for the blind.
It has a competitive edge, though. First of all, it can be worn beneath everyday clothing and used in tandem with more conventional guides (such as canes or service dogs). Second, like NHK’s weather cams that generated a lot of buzz back in 2010, it can “see” through dense atmospheric conditions.
Initial results have been favorable. Government-funded clinical tests revealed that 92% of the 25 visually challenged test subjects reported improved perception while using Guidesense, and 80% felt more confident in their independent mobility. However, it’s not without shortcomings: only 32% would be willing to use Guidesense in day-to-day life at this stage of development. Still, for a first clinical trial, the results look promising. VTT will be working out the issues in the next stage of R&D to address user dissatisfaction with distance control and vibrating alerts. It would behoove collaborators and competitors to reconcile the short-range technology with the users’ desire to easily visualize objects at various distances.