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Leicestershire Centre for Integrated Living

New device could help visually impaired avoid obstacles, research suggests

Date: 5/8/2021
Summary: Chest-mounted video camera and vibrating wristbands developed by US team reduce collisions by 37% in small study

Vibrating wristbands could help visually impaired people to avoid collisions when out and about, a study indicates.

According to the NHS, about 360,000 people in the UK alone are registered as blind or partially sighted, with long canes and guide dogs among the methods used to help individuals avoid obstacles.

Now researchers in the US have developed a technological aid: a chest-mounted video camera – linked to a processing unit involving a computer-vision algorithm – and a pair of vibrating wristbands.

When the system detects a hazard that the wearer is set to collide with, the wristband on the same side as the hazard vibrates. If the obstacle is straight ahead, both wristbands vibrate.

The researchers said the device was not designed to replace canes or guide dogs but rather to provide additional benefits, including helping wearers to avoid hazards above ground level.

Writing in the journal Jama Opthamology, the researchers reported that a study of 368 hours of walking video data from 31 blind or partially sighted participants indicates that the approach could be helpful.

After a period of training, each participant used the system for about four weeks, in addition to their cane or guide dog. During this time the system switched unannounced between “active” mode – during which the wristbands vibrated when a hazard was detected – and “silent” mode, where they did not.

The researchers then analysed the data to see whether the rate of contacts between the user’s body or cane and the objects identified by the system differed between the two scenarios.

When they looked at a random sample of collision warnings for each participant, they found that such contacts were reduced by 37% when the system was in active mode, taking into account factors including participants’ level of visual acuity.

“In their feedback they mentioned that the device was helpful in when walking in stores – shelving, items sticking out, warning for approaching pedestrians, overhanging branches, and in crowded and unfamiliar areas,” said Dr Shrinivas Pundlik, a co-author of the study from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear hospital.

However, the authors noted the study had limitations, including that the device might not have detected all possible hazards.

Robin Spinks, the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s strategic lead for innovation partnerships, who was not involved with the work, welcomed the study, noting that unlike other available options the system only warns of approaching obstacles that pose a collision risk.

“Wearable smart technology offers huge potential for blind and partially sighted people to be able to get out and about independently, and, of course, being able to avoid obstacles and collisions is a really important part of that,” he said.

Source: The Guardian

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