If you have good eyesight, imagine for a moment that you didn’t. How would you get to the grocery store? If you walk, how do you avoid obstacles along the way? Once you are there, how would you navigate the aisles and find the items you need? Those are everyday challenges for people with visual impairment. Canes and guide dogs can be very beneficial, but they do have drawbacks. That’s why a group of Harvard students developed a wearable vest that utilizes artificial intelligence to help visually impaired people move through the world.
The traditional white canes used by many people with limited eyesight are surprisingly effective, but they do require a lot of physical contact with surrounding world. Guide dogs can be expensive and they require care of their own. Both of them immediately indicate to strangers that a person has limited eyesight, which can result in feelings of “otherness.” This vest can provide many of the same benefits as a cane or guide dog, but is far less conspicuous. It isn’t a perfect solution, but rather another tool that visually impaired people can add to their arsenal in order to live in a world built for people who can see.
The wearable haptic vest is lined with soft robotic actuators that can be inflated to provide gentle feedback. That feedback is used to tell the wearer where obstacles are around them. The user’s smartphone phone sits in a cradle on the front of the vest with the camera facing forwards. An AI computer vision system based on YOLO (You Only Look Once) can look through the phone’s camera and detect various kinds of objects and classify them. If, for instance, a telephone pole is up ahead on the wearer’s right side, the vests actuator’s will indicate that with increasing strength as it gets closer. It can differentiate between stationary objects, other people, cars, and more, so that the user can react accordingly. The Harvard students created a startup company called Foresight for this technology, but we don’t yet know when — or if — this vest will make it to market.