Friday, July 31, 2009

A car for the visually impaired?

Mark Riccobono takes a test drive. Credit: Steven Mackay

This story begins in 2006, when the Blind Driver’s Challenge was initiated at Virginia Tech in response to a proposal made by the Jernigan Institute, a part of the National Federation of the Blind. This month, members of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory have made previously impossible dream possible: giving the blind an opportunity to drive.

The VT team has created a cutting-edge four-wheel dirt buggy, one that employs a whole range of technical gadgets to help a visually impaired person to navigate a closed driving course. The car has ‘eyes’ made of laser range finders that work as fast-paced sonar, relaying data on the distance to obstacles. There are voice commands coupled with a vibrating vest to aid in stopping, turning, and accelerating. And said voice commands are rigorous and detailed.

Wes Majerus, of the Jernigan Institute, the first blind person to drive the buggy, stated, "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. In some cases, the human passenger will be vague, "turn left" -- does that mean just a small turn to the left, or are we going for large amounts of turn?"

Wesley Majerus after testing out the VT car. Credit: Steven Mackay

There was an interesting observation during the tests: the blind did better than the sighted. "There wasn't a moment's hesitation with any of our blind drivers, whereas blind-folded sighted drivers weren't as quick to let go of their preconceptions," said Greg Jannaman, who led the Virginia Tech student team in his senior year and graduated in May. "The blind drivers actually performed better than their sighted counterparts."

The lab tackling the project is composed of undergraduate students as well as researchers. Though it has been a long road from the inception of the project in 2006, the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory found the experience well worth the struggle. "I thought it would be a very rewarding project, helping the blind," said Dennis Hong, the current faculty adviser on the project. "We are not only excited about the vehicle itself, but more than that, we are excited about the potential of the many spin-off technologies from this project that can be used for helping the blind in so many ways."

Later this month, they will take the buggy to the National Federation of the Blind's Youth Slam summer camp at College Park, Maryland, where blind teens who should be obtaining their driver’s licenses will have the rare opportunity to drive. There is hope that with so many test drivers, the VT team will be able to create an even better version of the buggy in future years, including to an improvement in the laser range sensors, which need to be fast and accurate. The current driving test lead to the additions of “a click counter steering wheel with audio cues, spoken commands for directional feedback, and a unique tactile map interface that utilizes compressed air to provide information about the road and obstacles surrounding the vehicle.”

This is the first working model of a car to aid visually impaired people. While there have been mock-ups in the past, none actually allowed for a true driving experience. Mark Riccobono, the executive director of the Jernigan Institute, also took a spin behind the wheel. “He called his test drive historic. ‘This is sort of our going to the moon project,’ he said. "


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