Vibrating motors and a Braille interface

Computer scientists have been working for decades on automatic navigation systems to aid the visually impaired, but it’s been difficult to come up with anything as reliable and easy to use as the white cane, the type of metal-tipped cane that visually impaired people frequently use to identify clear walking paths.
White canes have a few drawbacks, however. One is that the obstacles they come in contact with are sometimes other people. Another is that they can’t identify certain types of objects, such as tables or chairs, or determine whether a chair is already occupied.
Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a new system that uses a 3-D camera, a belt with separately controllable vibrational motors distributed around it, and an electronically reconfigurable Braille interface to give visually impaired users more information about their environments.
The system could be used in conjunction with or as an alternative to a cane. In a paper they’re presenting this week at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, the researchers describe the system and a series of usability studies they conducted with visually impaired volunteers.
“We did a couple of different tests with blind users,” says Robert Katzschmann, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at MIT and one of the paper’s two first authors. “Having something that didn’t infringe on their other senses was important. So we didn’t want to have audio; we didn’t want to have something around the head, vibrations on the neck — all of those things, we tried them out, but none of them were accepted. We found that the one area of the body that is the least used for other senses is around your abdomen.”
Katzschmann is joined on the paper by his advisor Daniela Rus, an Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; his fellow first author Hsueh-Cheng Wang, who was a postdoc at MIT when the work was done and is now an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan; Santani Teng, a postdoc in CSAIL; Brandon Araki, a graduate student in mechanical engineering; and Laura Giarré, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.