Posted in | News | Machine-Vision

New Autonomous Device Guides Visually Impaired People

Today, over 253 million visually impaired people are living in the world, and yet only a small number of these individuals are using a guide dog to get around, while the remaining depend on white canes.

Theia—a portable and concealable handheld device that guides users through outdoor environments with little user input. Image Credit: Loughborough University.

Some visually impaired people have decided not to use a service dog because they prefer to navigate their environments through other techniques. However, for others, it is not even a choice because of prohibiting lifestyle reasons such as the size of a house, expenses, or allergies.

A final year Industrial Design and Technology student Anthony Camu wished to develop a product that simulates the functions of a guide dog for visually impaired individuals that come under the latter category.

Taking a cue from virtual reality gaming consoles, Camu has conceptualized and began to prototype “Theia”—a concealable and portable handheld device that guides users via large indoor spaces and outdoor environments using minimal user input.

Theia is essentially a handheld robotic guide dog but without the waggy tail.

Using Theia

Theia, which was inspired by autonomous vehicles, aims to convert that sense of simplified driving into a system of convenient walking, aiding users to make complicated maneuvers without any need to think or see.

According to Camu, Theia is similar to a self-driving car and is appropriately dubbed after the titan goddess of sight. It will program paths to reach destinations and prevent mishaps along the way.

To make use of Theia, a user would simply pronounce: “Hey Theia, take me to (for instance) Cabot Circus.”

Since Theia is an internet of things (IOT) device, it will subsequently process real-time information that is available online, like weather and traffic density (cars and pedestrians) to guide users safely and precisely to their destinations.

Camu further believes that while guiding a user from point A to B, Theia will also help address particular interactions, like entrances, stairs, elevators, pedestrian crossings, shops, etc. Moreover, Theia will have a fail-safe process for high-risk situations, like crossing busy intersections.

When users are near to a crossing, Theia will hold them back and enter “manual mode,” which is somewhat like employing a cane.

Camu explained that such situations motivate users to maintain a level of control and awareness when it matters the most.

The Technology

Camu is aiming to integrate cameras and Lidar (a remote sensing technique that employs light) so that Theia can record a three-dimensional (3D) image of the users’ environments.

Robust on-board processors will subsequently establish the most optimal route to take and divide routes into separate commands—for instance, bear left at 1.4 m/s.

The challenge from here is relaying this data to the visually impaired individual, and the Theia robot is aiming to address this by physically “leading” users.

Theia will not only communicate complicated walking maneuvers but will also move the hands of users in open space through an innovative form of force feedback that includes a control moment gyroscope (CMG)—a technology found in space vehicles and satellites, such as the international space station.

One can compare the “leading” sensation to holding the brace of a guide dog—that is, users holding Theia would also be able to sense all the subtleties of vibration, direction, and speed and feel it pulling the users along.

According to Camu, as users will not expend time or mental processing to understand the commands issued by Theia, the device can enable those who have visual impairments to correspond, or even exceed, the speed of an average pedestrian.

Prototype and the Future

Camu was able to create prototypes that include the CMG technology. He used the prototypes to experiment with momentum to exploit the movement of one’s hand.

While the project is still in its initial stage and has problems like breaking motors and excess vibrations, the potential is definitely there.

Subsequent to user testing, a special system of resistance and force was identified, which can relay real-time complex walking maneuvers.

Camu is looking forward to build on his design and create prototypes by working with design programmers and engineers, probably even establishing a start-up firm and introducing a crowdfunding campaign.

I know this is a grand vision, but I hope people can see the positive effects Theia could have on the blind community. The goal of many non-sighted people is to be independent and live a normal life but unfortunately, many who endure vision loss feel excluded from situations and activities which many people take for granted, such as socializing, shopping or going to restaurants.

Anthony Camu, Student, Industrial Design and Technology, Loughborough University

Camu continued, “Such limitations are usually formed due to the fear and anxiety associated with having a partial understanding of the surroundings. Theia has the capacity to expand a blind person’s comfort zones and possibilities, broaden their horizons and allow them to think less about walking and more about what’s waiting for them at the end of the route.”

The ultimate goal is that Theia’s users can traverse routes safely and efficiently, at the same pace as, or even faster than, ordinary people, without the worry and hassle of visualising the environment.

Anthony Camu, Student, Industrial Design and Technology, Loughborough University

Theia is being displayed as part of the Design Degree Show’s digital showcase.

Student designs handheld robotic guide dog

Video Credit: Loughborough University.

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