Walking With A Seeing-Eye Computer

Seeing-eye dogs and, in some cities, beeping traffic lights help blind people get around town. But even without these aids, the visually impaired may soon be able to cross city streets safely. A research team at Japan's Kyoto Institute of Technology, led by Tadayoshi Shioyama, is developing a system that will use a tiny video camera and an earphone, both mounted on eyeglasses and connected to a handheld computer. When the user approaches an intersection, the computer analyzes the scene, looking for the white stripes of a crosswalk. If it spots them, the person hears directions, such as "10 steps ahead." Next, the crosswalk's length is calculated and vocalized in number-of-steps terms.

Looking toward the traffic light, the computer can identify the color pattern that signals when it is safe to proceed. The project is still in the research stage, but the Nov. 19 issue of Measurement Science & Technology, a British journal, says that the distances measured are accurate to within 5%. A prototype could be ready for testing next year.

By Rachel Tiplady

Edited by Otis Port

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