Pittsburgh Live, Pennsylvania USA.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006.
When Dan Rossi cooks, there's always a chance he'll grab a wrong ingredient and have to improvise a chef's surprise.
"Sure, I have a system of where I put things away, but nobody's perfect," said Rossi of Squirrel Hill, a database system administrator at Carnegie Mellon University, who has been blind since age 7. "A can of corn feels remarkably similar to a can of beans."
Engineers at CMU are developing affordable scanning systems to give blind people greater independence in daily activities, such as cooking, grocery shopping or riding a bus.
"The single biggest thing to a blind person is to have independence, to never have to ask a sighted person for assistance," said project leader Priya Narasimhan, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Narasimhan's venture is called Trinetra, a Sanskrit word referring to the powerful third eye of the Hindu god Shiva that provides light even when the two other eyes are engulfed in darkness.
Narasimhan thought of the idea for Trinetra two years ago when she noticed blind people struggling to catch a bus on a snowy night in Oakland.
She enlisted Rossi and CMU graduate students Patrick Lanigan, Aaron Paulos and Andrew Williams to design a system that would help the estimated 8 million Americans who are visually impaired "read" product labels or even track public transportation.
Their system relies on devices available in any electronics store, including a cell phone, Bluetooth wireless headset and portable bar code scanner.
Here's how the Trinetra prototype works:
The blind person uses a bar code-reading pencil to scan a grocery item. The information is sent via the wireless headset to an Internet-enabled cell phone.
The phone communicates with a public database, which translates the bar code into a recognizable product name.
This name is relayed to the cell phone, where text-to-speech software articulates it into the headset.
Using this technology, Rossi can shop for groceries without the help of a friend or store clerk. He also can distinguish between products in his own refrigerator and kitchen cabinet.
"Grocery shopping is one of the last areas where a blind or visually impaired person might have to depend on a volunteer or family member, so this technology could really make a difference in terms of independence," said Stephen Barrett, president of Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh in Homestead.
Blind since birth, Sue Etters, 54, of Sewickley, said she relies on her mother to accompany her to the supermarket or gives a typed list to a store employee.
"This would give you more flexibility," Etter said. "I think it would be really, really helpful, especially if it could help with sundry items like pantyhose and toothpaste."
But more extensive testing is needed to determine whether Trinetra would have broad appeal for the visually impaired, Rossi said.
"I don't know yet whether every blind person is going to go running out to the store with this and not need any assistance," he said.
When the Trinetra project began, Narasimhan financed it with her own office money and later received $7,500 from the state-run Pennsylvania Cyber Security Commercialization Initiative.
She is seeking commercial partners to refine and market the system, and support from the federally funded Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center run by the University of Pittsburgh and CMU.
The technology could be adapted to rely on radio frequency identification tags -- microchips with antennae that communicate product information wirelessly -- instead of bar codes. It also could be coupled with a global positioning system receiver on buses to allow blind and sighted riders to track arrival times and locations in real time. Narasimhan plans to test this technology on the CMU campus shuttle this fall.
Jennifer Bails can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 320-7991.
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