Sound-based wearable computer helps blind people “see”

Can your ears be your eyes as well? A group of scientists would like to think so.

An innovation created by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology is nothing less than a wearable computer, powered by GPS receivers and other devices, that helps visually impaired people “see.”

The number of devices to use the system is rather large. In addition to the two GPS receivers, you have to wear head and body compasses, a gyroscope-based tracker to measure how much your head tilts, a helmet with four cameras on it, a laptop in a backpack, and a microphone on each ear. Those microphones are called “bone phones” because they transmit sound by vibrating against the skull.

All of that hardware weighs just a few pounds, which is good considering how many devices you have to wear. However, all of the pieces of your “network” can help you get from place to place.

Just speak your destination, and the system determines via GPS both your present location and the location of your destination. You will hear soft tones to guide you. If it’s a right turn up ahead, you’ll hear a tone only in your right ear. If you need to straight ahead, the sound will come from straight ahead.

When it’s not emitting tones to guide you, the system is giving you sound bytes from what’s around you. For example, if you’re in a park, you’ll hear the sound of wind blowing through trees from the direction of that park.

The scientists say that the system works indoors as well, with the cameras picking up building interiors as patterns of light and color. Rather than the feed from the GIS database that you need when outside, the system will access the digitized floor plan of the building. (Indoors, you’ll hear a knocking sound, for example, when you pass a door.)

Obviously, this kind of functionality requires a large amount of memory. The backpack-based laptop is the brains of the operation, one that requires a large amount of information to begin with and needs regular updates. It is conceivable that the system can be hooked up to the Web for downloads, and the fact that laptops can stuff tons of information tends to help.

Scientists are also working on a slimmer and trimmer version, with the cameras fitting on a pair of glasses and a mobile phone replacing the laptop.


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