Commentary: Will Robots Someday Help Us Be More Independent?

1Robots are increasingly being considered to potentially help people with disabilities in the near future. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are developing a robot to assist people who are blind or visually impaired to travel more independently and safely. This is their second year conducting the research, and they hope to develop an assistive robot that can carry out different tasks. Some of these include helping travelers get directions and information at train stations, warn them about obstacles on their paths, etc.

Check out this article highlighting a robot helping people with visual impairments

 

As a blind person, I think that this type of innovative technology will not substitute the orientation and mobility techniques we currently use to get around safely and independently. Instead, I think it will serve as a type of complimentary assistance to those of us who can’t see. Train stations aren’t always accessible, and these types of robots might come in handy in helping us with small but important tasks. For example, when I go to a busy train station, I might need to go to the information desk to know when the next train arrives or purchase a ticket. I can definitely see a day when tasks like these will be easily done with the assistance of a robot or similar assistive device. I could simply ask the robot to tell me when the next train will arrive, or if the ticket vending machines are not accessible it could assist me in choosing and purchasing the ticket.

 

Researchers hope that these robots will also serve as “guides” for the blind and visually impaired. Dog guides are not for everyone, and people might not want a dog for religious or other reasons. These individuals might one day have the option to use a robot to guide them instead.

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Although the concept of using robots to assist people with disabilities is still in its early stages, I think it has a lot of potential for enhancing our and independence. How do you think robotic technology will help people with disabilities in the near future? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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How Will Technology Make Getting Around Easier In The Future?

Loud steps previewI decide to visit the new mall in town, but I’m not sure where everything is since it’s an unfamiliar place. After taking out my smartphone it begins telling me where each store is and how to get there. The concept of way finding technology is rapidly evolving, and it promises to be of great assistance for blind and visually impaired individuals. Several companies are currently developing a method of guiding individuals through indoor facilities by using Bluetooth beacons. These are small transmitters – about the size of a sticker – that send information to smart phones via Bluetooth. By using a specific mobile app, smartphone users will receive the information from the beacons on their devices.

Recently, the Chicago Lighthouse had the opportunity to test Loudsteps, a smartphone app that when combined with Bluetooth beacons can give directions and guide blind individuals to indoor locations. While many GPS devices and apps can help outside, there is no reliable technology device that can assist to travel in unfamiliar places independently.

Watch Sandy demonstrate Loud Steps

The Loudsteps app and accompanying beacons are manufactured by Boni Beacon, a company in Turkey that has been working on developing a navigation system for those who are blind or visually impaired. In addition to the Chicago Lighthouse, Boni is testing the new system at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in London and in several shopping centers in Turkey. The Loudsteps app is currently only available for iOS, but the company also plans to develop a version for Android. Blind iPhone users can navigate through the app’s menus buy using Voiceover, Apple’s screen-reading feature.

After installing the app and turning on the Bluetooth service on the iPhone, the user chooses their location from the menu of places where the system is available. As soon as the app picks up the Bluetooth signal from the nearest beacon, users begin hearing what’s around them and the approximate location. For example, when entering the Chicago Lighthouse lobby, the app will say that the store is on the left, the front desk is in front, and that there are offices on the right.

The app shows a list of all available locations within a facility, and users can choose where they want to go by tapping on the name. For example, if I want to go to the nearest restroom, I will tap on “toilet.” The app then tells me the direction and distance I should walk. Note that Loudsteps uses clockwise directions, and by default users are facing 12 O’clock. So, if I’m told that the nearest restroom is at 9 O’clock, I know I have to turn left and start walking in that direction. In the video below, I demonstrate how Loudsteps guides me to the cafeteria.

Overall, I think that the Loudsteps app and Bluetooth navigation system has a lot of potential for helping blind and visually impaired people be more independent. By using it in conjunction with a cane or dog guide, it can make navigating unfamiliar indoor spaces much easier for those of us who can’t see.

How do you think this or similar types of technology will help you in the future? Do you see other potential uses besides helping in navigation? Please send any questions to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org

Watch Out World, I May Soon Give Car Racing a Try!

Imagine this: a group of 19 car racers that happen to be both deaf and blind!! Sounds like a bad joke, but a group of deaf-blind individuals in Poland recently got the chance of their lives to do some car racing under the watchful eye of driving instructors. While a few of the racers drove at one point in their lives, the majority had never driven before, let alone raced in a car! Racers who still had some hearing or sight were given helmets and masks to level the playing field. The instructors made up a code of special tactile gestures so that racers would know when to start, turn, stop, etc.

I can only imagine the amount of trust the racers had to have on their sighted companions — I know I would really have to trust my companion if I ever decided to give car racing a try! I only have some light perception in my left eye, and cannot see anything else. Still, I can see (no pun intended) how this activity can boost someone’s confidence. The fact that you can drive by simply trusting someone else to be your eyes and ears can easily build up confidence!

Many technological advances – such as Google’s self-driving car – may possibly allow blind people to get around with more independence in the near future. Assuming that these vehicles are one day deemed safe for passengers, they have a lot of potential. I dream of the day when I can hop in a car and it’ll take me wherever I want whenever I please – I love the idea of no longer relying on public transportation or on others to get around!

You can read the full article about these racers here. I’d be more than thrilled to get the chance to do some car racing! This idea seems more amusing to me given that I’ve never driven before. If anyone’s interested and brave enough to give me this opportunity please let me know – I’m up for it!