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Smartphone app provides mobile guide for the visually impaired

14 July 2013

A research group at the University of Alicante has developed an application for smart phones that warns visually impaired people of overhanging obstacles.

Image courtesy of the University of Alicante
Image courtesy of the University of Alicante

Branches or awnings cannot be detected by guide dogs or with walking sticks. This software, which has been  awarded a prize by the Vodafone Foundation, makes use of the images from a stereo camera (with which some of the latest smartphones are equipped) to detect the proximity of aerial obstacles in the path of the user.

The application, which emerged from the project Detección de Obstáculos Aéreos -DOA (Aerial Obstacle Detection), has been developed by the University of Alicante’s Research Group "Mobile Vision Research Lab", directed by Miguel Ángel Lozano Ortega, Juan Manuel Sáez Martínez and Francisco Escolano Ruiz. The firm Neosistec has also participated in its development.

In some ways similar to automotive park-assist, the system feeds an audible warning to the user via the mobile speaker, or by a vibration signal detectable if the mobile is held close to the body, to warn of an approaching obstacle. The sound/vibration becomes more urgent as the obstacle is neared.

This application is comfortable and unobtrusive to the user and easy to use. It is used to complement - not substitute - walking sticks or guide dogs, but to solve a common problem: detecting overhanging objects with which the user might collide.

The invention is able to warn of obstacles by acoustic signals (through the phone speaker, not through headphones) or vibrations, so that normal hearing - a very important sense for the visually impaired - is not affected.

Eligible devices are so-called '3D phones', equipped with dual front camera, or any mobile phone with a single camera that incorporates a system to obtain two environmental observations separately. The application also makes use of data from some common mobile sensors, such as a magnetometers and accelerometers.

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