May 2016 Issue  Volume 17  Number 5

Independent Navigation

Project BLAID: Toyota's Contribution to Indoor Navigation for the Blind

For many of us, the idea of using robots in our daily lives is still the stuff of science fiction. But what if creative minds really could harness the power of technology in ways that would not only serve as tools of convenience, but perhaps even provide indispensable assistance that couldn't be measured in dollars and cents?

For the people who are a part of Toyota's Partner Robot Group, using technology to help improve the lives of regular people is more than just a passing idea; it is what they do every day. Partner Robot Group works to assist people in four main areas: 1) domestic duties, 2) nursing and medical care, 3) manufacturing, and 4) short-distance personal transport. They are working on robots that play the violin, travel places that humans can't easily go, and assist with the medical care of people who are ill.

Doug Moore is one of the members of the Partner Robot team at Toyota, and he is currently working on technology that might eventually aid blind people as they travel. Before you stop reading and say to yourself that you already have all the aids you need, from good cane and dog guide-handling skills to an array of GPS apps on your smartphone, stop and think about the last time you went to a large hotel or shopping mall. The place was probably very crowded, and the acoustics were possibly not conducive to good travel, either. And where were any easily discernible landmarks that you could use to reliably map out your surroundings? This is what the Partner Robot Group is working on: indoor navigation. What if you could easily find a desired office or restaurant in a large building with little or no difficulty? And what if you could do this in a way that did not draw unwanted attention to your blindness? If this sounds appealing to you, then keep reading.

Project BLAID: a Possible Solution for Indoor Navigation for People with Visual Impairments

Recently, Toyota's Partner Robot Group began thinking of ways to assist blind people in the area of independent travel. They realized that there are already many excellent solutions for outdoor travel. There plenty of good mainstream and assistive technology solutions that people who are blind can use in order to determine where they are, map a route to a desired location, and successfully navigate to that location using a combination of good orientation and mobility training and new hardware- or software-based technology. But there is still much work to be done in the area of indoor travel. The team began exploring various forms that this new travel aid might take, and they talked with many blind people, including those from the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind. Internally, the project was known as BLAID, which is short for "Blind Aid." As of this writing, Project BLAID does not yet have an official title.

Rather than creating a companion robot that would accompany a blind person everywhere, the team decided to take a look at wearable devices in order to determine if that might be a better solution. Focus groups were presented with shoes, gloves, belts, headgear, and many other wearable options, but the team eventually settled on a device to be worn around the shoulders, much like a neck pillow.

How Project BLAID Provides Navigation

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Partner Robot team member Doug Moore about Project BLAID. As I learned through my conversation with Moore, many of the questions I posed were the same as those being asked by the team itself.

One of the first things I asked was whether it would be necessary to pair the wearable device with a smartphone. Although this may be an enhancement that some will take advantage of, it will not be necessary to use anything other than this device when navigating.

The Partner Robot Group is working to ensure that this over-the-shoulder device will be as fashionable as possible. Focus groups were presented with many different designs, and the end result was a sleek design that the test participants were very pleased with.

I next asked about how the wearer would access information on the device in a way that would not be distracting to others, and would allow the wearer to maintain personal privacy. According to Moore, the device will not only have built-in speakers and a headphone jack, but will allow for Bluetooth connectivity to devices such as the AfterShokz bone conduction headphones. Vibrations will also be available if desired, for use with or without sound.

As I continued to visit with Moore, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of providing meaningful data for this unit. How would it be possible to map every building that a blind person would want to visit, and how would that information be kept current?

Navigation information will be stored on the wearable device itself, but there will certainly be a need to constantly update existing information. Wi-Fi connectivity and SD cards are certain to be part of this process. It will be necessary for the device to integrate with other technology such as iBeacons in order to obtain information about hotels, malls, airports, and the like.

The Bottom Line

As you read this article, stop and allow yourself to recall a project that you started, but soon gave up on because there were simply too many details--too many unanswered questions. For Doug Moore and the other members of the Toyota Partner Robot Group, those impossible questions are where the hard work really begins. As Moore talked about his work, I gained the sense that he really was proud of the accomplishments that the Partner Group has achieved. They are able to see the positive impact that their efforts have on people's lives--this is what keeps the team going.

One day, when Project BLAID has an official name, and when we are all using a cool-looking wearable device to navigate the hotel where we are playing with all the newest technology at the latest CSUN convention, perhaps we will take a moment to thank the members of Toyota's Partner Robot Group for not giving up on finding answers to the hard questions.

As with most projects, the work being done on Project BLAID will provide a springboard for new projects. What yet-to-be-released technology will make the difficulties associated with indoor navigation a distant memory? In the short term, perhaps developers of technologies such as Apple's iBeacons can work with Toyota and others to bring the needs of the visually impaired community to the forefront. We have most likely just scratched the surface of what is to come in the area of indoor navigation, and there are bound to be some exciting times ahead. Will it be possible to take the knowledge learned from the work being done on indoor navigation and apply that knowledge to outdoor travel as well? Will Toyota's Partner Robot Group be a part of that work also? Only time will tell, but there is no reason to think that this innovative, hard-working team won't continue to enrich the lives of the blind community for many years to come.

Product Information

This video with audio description provides more information about Project BLAID.

Visit the Toyota Partner Robot Group website to learn more about their work.

TheToyotaEffect.com is a great way to find out all of the things that Toyota is doing to enrich the lives of people everywhere.

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