Increase the autonomy of the blind or people with reduced vision, allowing their inclusion in a larger set of activities and improving their quality of life. This is the objective of the researchers of the Institute of Systems Engineering and Computers, Technology and Science (INESC TEC) and the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD), that created a system composed of several modules of geographic information, artificial vision and an electronic cane and capable of providing context information and navigation support for the blind.

It was with the goal of perfecting all these technologies that on February 19, tests were performed with blinds in the School of Science and Technology of UTAD. “At this stage of the project it is essential to do tests with the blind, because there are sometimes small details that while visual we can not perceive. It was in this sense that the Association of the Blind and the Visually Impaired (ACAPO) joined us in organizing these demonstrations, “explains João Barroso, a researcher at INESC TEC and a UTAD lecturer.

With regard to the equipment itself, for example, the electronic cane has been developed to extend the functionality of the traditional white cane (which the blind do not dispense) by adding the electronics necessary for the blind to interact with a mobile application (the navigation application) and at the same time help this application locate the user.

“The cost of this walking stick we developed is relatively low compared to other blind flares that are much more limited in their functionality. The production of our cane, in an isolated way and in terms of the components added by us, is around 300 euros. However, it is necessary to take into account that the cane does not work alone and the implementation of the system involves other costs that, in theory, fall on the installers, not on the user, “explains João Barroso.
The cane developed by the researchers is instrumented with: a fist (3D print) that incorporates all electronics, a radio frequency label reader (RFID) and a tip antenna (component that helps to estimate the user’s location), a joystick (top, bottom, left, right and center) to interface with the mobile application, a beep, a haptic actuator (vibration emission with various durations and frequencies), a Bluetooth transmitter (for smartphone) and a battery.

 For the cane to work it needs to interact with the mobile navigation application. It is the responsibility of the navigation application: obtaining the location of the user using other technologies (GPS, Wifi, Computer vision, among others), the storage of the geographic information necessary for its operation (maps developed by the researchers in a web platform also developed for them), the calculation of routes for points of interest, the alert on the existence of points of interest in the vicinity of the user and the user interface via audio (text to speech) and via haptic.

In order to test all these concepts, the researchers created a demonstration scenario in the ECT / UTAD that, in addition to the various equipment mentioned, also had a 3D model of the place so that blind people can use at the beginning of the demonstration to make a recognition of the test space through the sense of touch.

The Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) recognized this project with the 2015 Digital Inclusion and Literacy Prize, worth 29 thousand euros. The statements that are now being made arise following this recognition.
“In the future, it is expected that any user will be able to configure the level of information that they want to obtain through the system, and quality and quantity are extremely relevant factors. It is not enough to say whether or not there are stairs in a certain building, you have to inform the person how many steps the staircase has, whether or not there is a handrail, among others,”, concludes João Barroso.