Robotic Support for the Blind

The American Federation for the Blind reports that only 44% of blind Americans are employed, compared to about 77% of sighted people. While discrimination and transportation are both obstacles to employment for people with visual limitations, these figures show that visual impairment is still a big issue in daily life.

Can robotics help?

Refreshable Braille displays

Braille is an ancient way to make text readable for the blind. Now, Refreshable Braille Displays process information one computer displays and output that information to electronic devices that raise and lower pins in Braille cells.

While these devices have been around since the 1970s, technology used in robotics has updated them to the point where they are a completely practical way to use a computer or iPad.

Visual sensors

One project uses visual sensors to provide additional information for blind people. The same sensors that let robots figure out the location and shape of an object can communicate this information to people who can’t see the object. The information then uses touch sensors to describe the object for the human being.

Researchers from University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, are developing a hand-work device that conveys the information gathered by the visual sensors by means of touch. A human user can wear the device, which is designed to be less obtrusive than a glove, and get its help picking up a glass, opening a door, and performing more complex actions with the information provided.

Naturally, similar technology can reduce uncertainty for blind people navigating in unfamiliar environments. Facial recognition software is used in similar ways, as well.

The researchers are funded by an $820,000 National Robotics Initiative grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute division.

Collaborative robots

Baxter has been pressed into service by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s TechBridgeWorld to help blind people do tasks like identifying the correct bus pass While blind people often have personal workarounds for tasks like these, researchers found that people were more at ease asking for help of this kind from an assistive robot when needed than they were in asking other people for help.

Spot, another popular robot, can work as a guide dog. While it can’t have the kind of relationship a person has with a dog, it may be less limited in contexts like hospitals or public transportation.

All these tools can increase independence for visually impaired people and give them more employment options.

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