Wearable device aims to keep visually impaired safer

Oct. 20, 2021
A newly developed wearable computer vision device could reduce collisions and falls for those who typically use a cane to get around.

For many, use of a wearable device can mean health-tracking via a Fitbit or accessing smartphone apps with an Apple Watch. Wearables are even used in various areas of healthcare. Now, researchers in Massachusetts are demonstrating that wearable devices could be used for travel and everyday mobility—specifically, keeping those who are blind and visually impaired safer.

A wearable computer vision device, developed by a team of vision rehabilitation researchers at Mass Eye and Ear (part of Mass General Brigham), could reduce collisions and falls for those who typically use a cane to get around.

Independent travel is an essential part of daily life for many people who are visually impaired, but they face a greater risk of bumping into obstacles when they walk on their own, says Gang Luo, Ph.D., an associate scientist at the Schepens Eye Research Institute of Mass Eye and Ear and an associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. Although many blind individuals use long canes to detect obstacles, collision risks are not completely eliminated.

In their study, the imaging device and data recording unit are together embedded in a chest-mounted, wide-angle camera, with two Bluetooth-connected wristbands worn by the user. Specifically, the researchers explain, the camera is connected to “a processing unit that captures images and analyzes collision risk based on the relative movement of incoming and surrounding objects in the cameras field of view.” When a collision is detected on the left side or right, the corresponding wristband will vibrate; if there is threat of a head-on collision, both wristbands vibrate. The new device analyzes relative motion. It warns only of approaching obstacles that pose a collision risk, the study notes, and ignores objects not on a collision course.

“Long canes are still very helpful and cost-effective tools that work well in many situations, but we hope a wearable device like this can fill in the gaps that the cane might miss, providing a more affordable, easier-to-obtain option than a guide dog,” says Alex Bowers, Ph.D., a clinical researcher and a co-author of the study. “The insights provided by our data can be valuable for improving mobility aid training.” Reference: S. Pundlik, V. Baliutaviciute, M. Moharrer, A. R. Bowers, and G. Luo, JAMA Ophthalmol. (2021); doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2021.2624.

About the Author

Justine Murphy | Multimedia Director, Laser & Military

Justine Murphy is the multimedia director for the Laser & Military Group at Endeavor Business Media. In addition to Laser Focus World, the group includes Military & Aerospace Electronics and Vision Systems Design. She is a multiple award-winning writer and editor with more 20 years of experience in newspaper publishing as well as public relations, marketing, and communications. For nearly 10 years, she has covered all facets of the optics and photonics industry as an editor, writer, web news anchor, and podcast host for an internationally reaching magazine publishing company. Her work has earned accolades from the New England Press Association as well as the SIIA/Jesse H. Neal Awards. She received a B.A. from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

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