Kinect user and scanned environment Kinect user and scanned environment A user navigates a hallway using sound cues in a demonstration of the application. The Kinect-scanned environment is shown at right.

Students combine video game and GPS tech to help the blind

Innovative application functions like a seeing-eye dog but uses Microsoft's Kinect technology.

A class project developed by students at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology helps people with visual impairments walk safely by using technology instead of a seeing-eye dog. The application combines a mobile phone, a mini PC, a set of headphones, and the Kinect 3D camera which premiered with Microsoft's Xbox gaming system.

The application, which doesn't yet have a name, uses the Kinect sensor - which is worn at belt level - to create a 3D image of a room. The system then employs audio cues over the headphones to navigate users, allowing them to walk through doors and hallways, avoid obstacles and pick up targeted objects. The user can also speak to the mobile phone (an Android-powered device) to tell the system where he or she wants to go. The wearer either receives spoken directions ("turn left") or beeps to warn of approaching objects. You can see the system in action below:

Undergraduate student Tzahi Simkin, who led the project, said he was inspired to create the system when he was driving and saw a blind man having difficulty crossing the road. "I thought to myself that if I could only describe to him, through technological means, a snapshot of the surrounding area, I would make it much easier for him and build his confidence in getting better oriented with his surroundings," he said in a press release. "I wanted to combine technological development with social assistance, and this is how this product was born; it connects a depth camera and cellular application, and integrates two different technological systems."

Simkin partnered on the project with two fellow undergrads, Danny Zilber and Gal Dalal, who said their system was so precise that it allowed users to pick up objects as small as a handbag or a ring of keys.

The three undergrads served as their own test subjects for the system, which has not yet been tested on people with actual visual impairments. They have, however, reached out to the Association for the Blind in Haifa for testers and feedback.

Simkin said he and his fellow students - who received a grade of 100 for their work - are hopeful that their product will be of use to the blind community in the near future. "Our motivation for the project was to help those who needed help," he said. "There are over 150 million blind and visually impaired people in the world, yet the number of technological solutions offered to them today is very limited. Our product is not yet perfected, and we intend to continue to develop it."

The past few years have seen a number of student projects aimed at helping the visually impaired. Last year, Costa Rican high-school student Isaac Christopher Portocarrero-Mora won a scholarship for developing a system that would help people who were both blind and deaf through glove embedded with vibrating electronics. The year before, a Romanian student named Ionut Alexandru Budisteanu developed a system that would help blind people to recognize images by sending the information to their tongues. More recently, a Ph.D. student named Nabeel Khan at the University of Otago in New Zealand developed an app that turns photos taken on a smartphone into audio directions for blind users.

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