“Sighted” Wheelchair Makes First Successful Test Drive

May 24, 2011
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A “sighted” wheelchair has been taken on a successful first test drive by a PhD-student who is visually impaired. The electric wheelchair is steered with a joystick and has a “haptic robot” that works like a virtual white cane. A laser scanner helps to create a simplified 3D map of the wheelchair surroundings. The laser scanner uses a technique called “Time-of-flight.” After the 3D map is produced, it transfers back to the haptic robot. This allows a wheelchair user with a visual impairment to “feel or see” obstacles like oncoming people or open doors, and navigate past them.

Researchers at Luleå University of Technology say the “sighted” electric wheelchair can sense its environment and transmit information to a person with a visual impairment. This wheelchair has been developed by a professor at the university, Kalevi Hyyppä, and his research team at the LTU division EISLAB.

A prospective graduate student in the research project, Daniel Innala Ahlmark (pictured), is visually impaired yet dared to make the first public test in a changing environment of hallways crowded with oncoming students and with many classrooms that usually make navigation very difficult for people who are visually impaired. Ahlmark tested the “sighted” wheelchair “live” in front of local and national media in Sweden. He explained how he experienced it as he avoided obstacles and people along the corridor. “I feel safe when I run it, it is like using a white cane.”

Yet the researchers at LTU say there is still much work to be done by improving the 3D sensor and the haptic robot. “The laser beam that sweeps in front of the wheelchair hits only objects which are a certain height. It has not the capacity to see things that are higher or lower than that height. Now the research team plan to develop a 3D camera that can do a full 3D measurement. Then the sighted wheelchair can be manufactured and used for real. This might be possible in approximately five years.”

Image Credit: Luleå University of Technology

Author: Tessa

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