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"Smart" walking stick can help visually impaired perform daily tasks more easily

Engineers at the University of Colorado Boulder are tapping into advances in artificial intelligence to develop a new type of cane for blind and visually impaired. The researchers say that their "smart" walking stick will someday help blind people navigate and perform daily more easily: from grocery shopping to choosing a seat in a crowded cafe.

The team’s walking cane resembles a regular red and white cane, but it also has a few additions: using a camera and computer vision technology, the walking stick maps and catalogs the world around it. It then guides users by using vibrations in the handle and spoken directions, such as "reach a little bit to your right".

According to the developers of the "smart" walking stick: "AI and computer vision are improving, and people are using them to build self-driving cars and similar inventions, but these technologies also have the potential to improve quality of life for many people".

First, the research team explored the potential of the technology by using the "smart" cane to guide the user in a crowded place and help find an empty seat, for example, in a cafeteria.

Study subjects strapped on a backpack with a laptop in it and picked up the smart walking stick. They moved around to survey the room with a camera attached to the cane handle. Like a self-driving car, algorithms running inside the laptop identified the various objects in the room and then calculated the route to an ideal seat. The study showed promising results: study participants were able to find an empty chair in 10 out of 12 trials with varying levels of difficulty.

After that the researchers adapted their device for a different use. The new goal was to help blind or visually impaired people find and grasp products on store shelves with dozens of similar-looking and similar-to-touch choices. They created a database of product photos into their software. Study participants then used the walking stick to scan the shelf, searching for the product they wanted.

It will take some time before the "smart" walking stick makes it into the hands of real users. But the researchers also hope their preliminary results will inspire other engineers to rethink what robotics and AI are capable of.