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How AI Technology Helps the Visually Impaired Navigate New Environments

By April 12, 2021

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If you are one of the 12 million blind or visually impaired people reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be living in the United States, you know the daily challenges you face as you navigate through a world you cannot see well or at all. This can be especially challenging when you are in unfamiliar surroundings, such as moving into a new home or visiting a new neighborhood or city.


AI Technology Advances

Fortunately, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has come a long way in recent years. Moreover, many companies are now focusing their AI research and development on creating assistive devices and apps that help you and other visually impaired children and adults “see” your world and navigate through it with more confidence and less need for human or canine guides. These devices, in turn, give you not only more independence but also increased mobility. Here are just a few of them.


Intel’s Backpack System

Perhaps the most elaborate, but unobtrusive, AI system for the blind and visually impaired is Intel’s much-anticipated backpack system currently still in development and undergoing testing. This system features several components:

  • A wearable vest or fanny pack featuring a 4K camera that gives color information and a pair of stereoscopic cameras that give depth information
  • A backpack containing a computing unit that analyzes the visual data, a portable battery that gives you upwards of eight hours of use, and a GPS unit with USB connectivity
  • A pair of earphones that relay the information to you via Bluetooth

The system warns you of obstacles of all types, sizes, and shapes and tells you where they are in relation to you. It can read signs, detect crosswalks and alert you to upcoming elevation changes such as curbs. You can also ask it to describe what’s around you and it will do so, saying such things as “car, 10 o’clock,” “person, 12 o’clock,” etc. You can also ask it to find a place, for instance, a coffee shop, by saying, “Find a coffee shop.” You can then save that information and, when you want to go back, simply tell the system, “Locate coffee shop.” It will tell you how far away it is from your current location and give you directions on how to get there.


WeWALK’s Smart Cane

WeWALK’s ingenious smart cane is already available with a free downloadable Smartphone App, available on both iOS and Android. The cane looks much like a traditional white cane, but in addition to having a rolling marshmallow tip and being fully foldable with “shake out” re-extension, it features a larger top piece that contains a speaker. It also comes with a USB input that charges the battery for up to five hours of usage. The system identifies and warns you of obstacles both at ground level and above. The navigation feature uses clock directions, destination tracking, and low-vision mapping. It can give you automatic voice feedback about what you’re walking past, or you can find nearby restaurants and other destinations (and how to get there) by using the “What’s Around Me” feature. It also makes finding public transportation easier by telling you what options you have, where the bus and other stops are located, and how to get there. It even lets you check timetables. Finally, you get free and continuous software updates.


Additional Low-Vision AI Systems

Numerous other low-vision devices are available, including the following:

  • Envisions smart glasses that identify everyday objects
  • Google’s Lookout, an Android app that recognizes printed text, signs, people, and objects and notifies you of them with audio cues that include their clock positions
  • Microsoft’s Seeing AI, a free app that acts as a “talking camera”
  • Toyota’s guide collar buzzes on the left or right side to let you know which way to turn


All in all, the AI explosion makes your navigation challenges much easier to overcome, all without having to rely on family members, friends, or service dogs to get you where you want to go.

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