Blind World

Robot lends 'a seeing eye' for blind shoppers.

July 11, 2005.

As personalized shopping assistants go, it may not be the most attractive one around. The Robotic Guide "dog" created by a Utah State University professor and his graduate students looks like a cross between a carpet cleaner and the plumbing fixtures in your basement.

But the thinking behind the Robotic Guide is to create a device that can guide the blind through grocery-store aisles, the mall or maybe even an airport without assistance.

Lynn Krumm, 45, would welcome the help.

Krumm has Usher syndrome type 2, a genetic disorder that involves hearing loss and can cause vision deterioration severe enough to lead to blindness.

When Krumm shops in her local grocery store in Logan, Utah, she has to wait about 20 minutes for a customer-service representative to help her find items.

So Krumm, like many of the nation's 1.3 million legally blind people, has built her schedule around the availability of sighted guides. Store obstacles - product reshuffling, floor layout and sale items - make it difficult to navigate an environment that others take for granted.

"For someone losing their sight, it's hard to swallow your pride and say 'I need help with this,' " Krumm says. "This is a step towards relieving some of that anxiety and alleviating some of that dependency,"

So she was thrilled when researchers at Utah State asked her to participate in the Robotic Guide research project. "It makes you feel more like a human, a valued member of society," Krumm says.

Two years ago, Vladimir Kulyukin, an assistant computer science professor at Utah State, was talking with Sachin Pavithran, a friend and blind colleague, about the obstacles the blind and visually impaired routinely face.

The two decided to build a device that could help the visually impaired navigate stores.

The prototype, called RG, consists of a commercially available motorized base, built by, in Amherst, N.H. It has rechargeable batteries and a microcontroller that lets the unit take directions from the attached laptop computer, which has a speech-synthesis engine. The user works with a Braille store directory and a numeric keypad to tell the device what to look for.

"When the robot reaches a destination - say, the Cheerios cereal shelf in the cereal aisle - the speech-synthesis engine generates an appropriate message telling the user that the Cheerios cereal boxes are on the shelf to his/her right." Kulyukin says.

The robot also has a shopping basket mounted on top and a handle in the back that the user holds during navigation.

Still, there are limitations.

For instance, those who are not familiar with Braille will not be able to use the shopping assistant. "We are working on a speech interface that will allow the user to access the product directory through synthesized speech," Kulyukin says. After a testing phase conducted at Lee's Marketplace, a grocery store in Logan, Kulyukin negotiated with the local Wal-Mart and other grocery stores to conduct more extensive trials.

Other obstacles discovered while testing included the robot's inability to access individual items and navigation handling.

"Right now, the robot will guide you to the Colgate toothpaste shelf, but the user will have to grope for an individual toothpaste box," Kulyukin says. "Obviously, there is a chance that a wrong box can be picked."

The team is attempting to address the problem by integrating a small bar-code reader, which is already used by most grocery stores.

"What we anticipate is that once the robotic shopping assistant gets the user to a shelf with a bunch of individual items, the user will then use a miniature bar-code reader, essentially a pencil, to read the bar code on the shelf until the bar code of the right item is found," he says.

But at least one organization wants to take a wait-and-see approach before getting too excited.

Paul Schroeder, vice president of programs and policies for the American Foundation for the Blind, calls the research admirable but says the promise of technology doesn't always pan out in the real world.

"For this device to be helpful, they must conquer problems that would arise in an imperfect environment," Schroeder says.

The $5,000 device is not ready to market or mass-produce, Kulyukin says. "But we would like to eventually see the Robotic Guide in other environments, like airports."

The researchers built RG using existing technology. The work is funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and two grants from Utah State.

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