Landmark Plaza - Flickr

It might not be that surprising to hear that a tech company is trying to develop a wearable device that helps visually impaired people get around by foot, but an automotive company doing so might make you do a double take. Double take aside, Toyota is working to develop a wearable device for the visually impaired that will help them do more with greater freedom, independence and confidence. Called Project BLAID, it reflects the company’s commitment to enrich lives by advancing the freedom of mobility for all.

The Project BLAID device will help fill the gaps left by canes, dogs, and basic GPS devices by providing users with more information about their surroundings. Worn around their shoulders, it will help users better navigate indoor spaces, such as office buildings and shopping malls. More specifically, it will enable users to recognize elements in the physical environment including restrooms, escalators, stairs, and doors.

The device will be equipped with cameras that detect the user’s surroundings and communicate information to him or her through speakers and vibration motors. Users, in turn, will be able to interact with the device through voice recognition and buttons. Toyota plans to eventually integrate mapping, object identification, and facial recognition technologies.

“Project BLAID is one example of how Toyota is leading the way to the future of mobility, when getting around will be about more than just cars,” said Simon Nagata, Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, Toyota Motor North America. “We want to extend the freedom of mobility for all, no matter their circumstance, location or ability.”

While Toyota is working on a device that goes around the shoulders, Microsoft has been testing a bone conducting headset to assist visually impaired individuals. Bone conduction delivers sound to the inner ear by using your skull as a delivery method. Incidentally, bone conduction transmission works with people with regular or impaired hearing.

Microsoft’s headset is aimed at guiding visually impaired people around busy cities. Microsoft has teamed up with the charity Guide Dogs to conduct test trials in the United Kingdom between Reading and London. The trials incorporate walking directions and public transportation.

For the original trials, the headset used a prototype of Microsoft’s 3D soundscape technology along with a Windows Phone for GPS data. These worked with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth beacons that had been strategically placed in the trial location.

If headset wearers are straying from their path, they are directed with a ping to the ear on the relevant side and voice directions for turn-by-turn instructions. Points of interest are also utilized. During this time, the wearers are able to hear the real world sounds around them.

In the last few months, the headset has been given a useful update that allows the user to ask for information via voice controls. The new features are named Orientate and Look Ahead which give the user information on what is coming up in terms of distance. There’s also a physical remote, with three buttons, which allows wearers of the headset – who may be using a cane or have a guide dog on a leash – to use this instead of a smartphone.

“Cities need to be built for absolutely everyone, but no one’s going to knock them down and make them accessible,” explained Chris Yates, customer experience lead for Guide Dogs. “What we’re doing is using existing infrastructure and working around it with technology.”

While the devices from Microsoft and Toyota are still in the developmental phase, they do show some promise. Additionally, it is good to hear how companies of this caliber continue to think outside the box for ways to assist consumers.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Landmark Plaza, Flickr)