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Intel-Powered Backpack Can Help Blind People Navigate Their Surroundings

(Credit: Intel)

Currently, many blind users rely on walking canes or guide dogs to help them navigate the world. However, an AI researcher has come up with another promising tool: an Intel-powered backpack that can identify and call out objects around the user. 

The backpack comes from an AI software developer named Jagadish Mahendran, who’s been developing computer vision programs to help robots see. “Last year when I met up with a visually impaired friend, I was struck by the irony that while I have been teaching robots to see, there are many people who cannot see and need help,” Mahendran said in a statement.  

The system uses off-the-shelf parts. The prototype Mahendran and his team developed includes a backpack containing a Lenovo Yoga laptop running a Core i7 processor and 8GBM of RAM. 

The backpack system

Credit: Intel

The laptop is then connected to a Luxonis OAK-D spatial AI camera, which can track objects via three cameras. In addition, the device uses Intel’s computer vision processing tech Movidius VPU and the Intel Distribution OpenVINO toolkit.  

The backpack system

Credit: Intel

The Luxonis camera is also small enough to discreetly tuck it inside a jacket vest at chest level, without anyone noticing. “Three tiny holes in the vest provide viewports for the OAK-D unit, which is attached to the inside of the vest with Velcro tape,” Intel wrote in a case study on the technology. 

The final component is a fanny pack, which contains a battery capable of providing the system up to eight hours of use. The resulting package is certainly not the most fashionable creation, but in a video demo, Mahendran shows the entire getup is able to recognize approaching objects and tell the wearer about them.  

For example, the backpack can announce when a stop sign is ahead, and if the user is entering a crosswalk. It can also warn about incoming obstacles, such as poles, wires, and tree leaves, by announcing in which direction they’re present. 

Bluetooth-enabled earbuds enable the wearer to hear the alerts privately. Those same earbuds can also receive voice commands. In another demo, Mahendran asks the backpack to describe his surroundings. In response, the system begins listing the color of the pavement, the presence of a traffic light at 11 o’clock, and how a group of people are approaching.

It isn’t clear if or when the backpack will ever become commercialized. However, the system joins other prototypes and products, such as smart glasses, that’ve been designed to help blind people navigate the world.

Unlike clunky smart glasses or headsets, Intel points out the backpack system doesn’t draw much attention to the wearer. “Visually impaired users can take advantage of the system for both indoor and outdoor navigation, as well as for gaining an understanding of their local environment. Simple to put on, it’s inconspicuous,’ the company wrote.   

Mahendran and his team originally submitted the project to the OpenCV Spatial AI competition last year, and it won the top prize. He plans on open-sourcing the technology and publishing a research paper about the work in the near future.

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