White Cane Image
Study author Lingqiu Jin tests the robotic cane. (Credit: Cang Ye, VCU)

Equipped with a color 3D camera, an inertial measurement sensor, and its own on-board computer, a newly improved robotic cane could offer blind and visually impaired users a new way to navigate indoors. When paired with a building’s architectural drawing, the device can accurately guide a user to a desired location with sensory and auditory cues, while simultaneously helping the user avoid obstacles like boxes, furniture, and overhangs.

Using infrared light, much like a mobile phone’s front-facing camera, the system can determine the distance between the cane and other physical objects, including the floor, features like doorways and walls, as well as furniture and other obstacles. Using this information, along with data from an inertial sensor, the cane’s onboard computer can map the user’s precise location to the existing architectural drawing or floorplan, while also alerting the user to obstacles in their path.

There are still a few kinks to be worked out before the system will be market-ready – it’s still too heavy for regular use, for example, and the research team is looking for a way to slim down the device. Nevertheless, with the ability to easily switch between its automated mode and a simpler, non-robotic “white cane mode,” the device could provide a key independence tool for the blind and visually impaired, without losing the characteristics of the white cane that have stood the test of time.

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