Using advanced shapes/signals recognition techniques, smartphones will soon be able to help visually impaired people to navigate their way around in their surroundings.

Smartphone Now Gearing up to Guide Visually Impaired People

The ‘Mobility and Navigational Aid for Visually Impaired Persons’ initiative, which is still under development, has already attracted the attention of the scientific community. The project has just won a Google Faculty Research Award, which carries a value of over $80,000. This will allow the team led by Professor Rainer Stiefelhagen at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany, to continue prototyping their visual recognition application. The Navigational Aid uses a camera and smartphone to warn a visually impaired person of approaching obstacles.

Camera channelling signals from the environment

The system developed by the KIT team is in fact extremely intuitive. It comprises a camera connected to a smartphone, plus dedicated software to process the data sent from one to the other. The camera recognises not only obstacles but also other signals such as traffic lights and also has a wider range of spatial recognition capabilities so that it can for instance find the way to the entrance of a building. All the ambient data is processed and then sent to the smartphone, which provides relevant information to the visually impaired user by means of various stimuli. The phone uses haptic and acoustic signals such as vibration, alerts and warning signals or actual speech, based on pre-defined phrases, to talk to the visually impaired person. Prototypes are still being developed in close cooperation with the KIT Study Center for Visually Impaired Students. “We want our system to adapt to the particular demands of the prospective users already during its development,” explains Professor Stiefelhagen, who heads up the Center.

Specific focus on the visually impaired

Many recently-developed technologies have sought to remedy vision problems, but up to now the main target audience has always been those afflicted with blindness. Initiatives such as Second Sight and the smart walking stick provide definite improvements to the quality of life of blind people, but they do not really meet the needs of the visually impaired. Yet, according to the World Health Organisation, there are around 250 million visually impaired people in the world compared with 40 million people who are actually blind. By contrast, the KIT project is aiming precisely at the visually impaired community, over 90% of whom live in developing countries. Given that smartphones are very easy for the visually impaired to use thanks to newly-added features provided by the manufacturers, the idea of using these mobile devices with a dedicated app would appear to be the ideal solution for a physical navigation aid. In addition, the use of simple and relatively affordable technology for the platform should mean that this vision aid solution can be used on a wide scale.

By Quentin Capelle