PHOTO: courtesy university of birmingham
(WIRED) —  

When you’re blind, navigating the world involves more than avoiding physical obstacles. Just as important is navigating your social relationships, which can be a challenge when you’re not always sure who’s around you.

Researchers at Birmingham City University, in the UK, are attempting to address that issue with a new cane design that will help the visually impaired recognize people from up to 32 feet away.

The researchers – Waheed Rafiq, Steve Adigbo, and Richard Howlett – are in the process of building the XploR, a “smart” cane that’s embedded with a camera, facial recognition software, and GPS.

Their idea is to embed the capabilities of a computer into the prosaic cane, long considered to be an affordable and effective mobility aid.

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The cane’s camera and facial recognition software work in tandem.

The camera, located just below the handle, has a 270-degree lens for capturing as much of the user’s environment as possible.

The software built into the cane draws on a database of photos pulled from services like Gmail and Outlook (the teams has plans to incorporate Linkedin, too), and you can add as many faces to the database as you want by snapping a photo with the cane’s camera.

As soon as the camera notices a person, its software (an open-source computer-vision algorithm) will begin scanning the face to see if there’s a match. If the scanned images matches a portrait in the database, the corresponding name and location will be fed back to the cane carrier via a bluetooth bone-conduction ear piece, which uses vibrations to communicate information and to cut down on aural distraction.

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Rafiq says the additional features, like GPS, will allow the visually impaired to navigate directions more easily (signaling, for example, that a left turn is coming up).

The same image-capture technique could potentially help the blind identify and maneuver around common physical obstacles, too. Really, Rafiq says, the cane prototype is essentially a vessel into which you can toss many functional features.

“To start, we wanted to keep it simple,” he says. “We wanted to think about what people really need.” The team has plans to further develop XploR and find funding from investors to turn it into a commercial product.

But is XploR an overly complicated (and expensive) hybrid of two things blind people might already own—a cane and a smartphone? Maybe, says Chris Danielsen, a spokesperson for the Federation of the Blind in the United States.

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Whereas a cane is cheap, a high-tech, souped-up one could be costly. “By contrast,” Danielson says, “an app on a smart phone that performs the same function [such as facial recognition] might be more cost-effective.”

Still, Danielsen agrees that XploR’s functionality is important, adding that his organization has looked into similar technology to enable facial recognition.

“The technology, whether incorporated into a cane or another device, has potential to solve a real problem experienced by blind people, particularly at large social gatherings or networking events,” he says.

Because it’s one thing to get from point A to point B safely. It’s a whole other thing to be able to say hello to the people you know while you do it.

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