The same technology that lets cars drives themselves allows the visually impaired to drive too. Virginia Tech undergraduates packed an all – terrain buggy with technology lifted from the university’s DARPA Urban Challenge entry to create a car the visually impaired can drive. The semi-autonomous vehicle uses a laser range finder, voice software and other sensory technology. It worked flawlessly when visually impaired drivers took the wheel on a closed course. Advocates for the visually impaired joined the lead researcher in calling the vehicle a breakthrough in independent living for the visually impaired.
“We are not only excited about the vehicle itself, but also, the potential spinoff technologies from this project that could end up helping the visually impaired,” says Dennis Hong, the Director of the University’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory.
In 2004, the National Federation of the Blind issued a challenge, when it called on universities to develop a vehicle for the visually impaired. Virginia Tech accepted the challenge in 2006,- the only university to do so, recieving a $3,000 grant to begin the project.
The Visually Impaired Challenge team at Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory built the buggy. The steering wheel is hooked up to a distance monitor that gathers information from laser range finders. It uses voice software to tell the driver how far to turn the wheel.
A vibrating vest provides cues to follow when accelerating and decelerating. The vest vibrates in different places – the back, belly and the shoulders-to convey different commands. When the entire vest vibrates, it means, “slam on the brakes!”
“The 2009-2010 team will be applying technology to an electric vehicle to eliminate the vibration caused by the motor altogether." The system, called Airpix, shoots compressed air through tiny holes on a screen in real time, to provide a layout of the area surrounding the vehicle. Drivers can "read" map with a hand, much like Braille. Hong said he needs more feedback from the visually impaired to refine the system.
All this technology is clearly in its earliest stages. We’re a long way from the day when the visually impaired join us slogging through the morning commute. But the Federation of the Blind hailed the vehicle and the promise it offers.
"It’s a great first step," Wes Majerus, an access-technology expert for the federation, said in a press release."As far as the differences between human instructions and those given by the voice in the blind Driver Challenge car, the car’s instructions are very precise. You use the technology to act on the environment – the driving course- in a very orderly manner."