Giving Blind Runners Independence With AI

Being able to see, move, and exercise independently is something most of us take for granted. [Thomas Panek] was an avid runner before losing his sight due to a genetic condition, and had to rely on other humans and guide dogs to run again. After challenging attendants at a Google hackathon, Project Guideline was established to give blind runners (or walkers) independence from a cane, dog or another human, while exercising outdoors. Using a smartphone with line following AI software, and bone conduction headphones, users can be guided along a path with a line painted on it. You need to watch the video below to get a taste of just how incredible it is for the users.

Getting a wheeled robot to follow a line is relatively simple, but a running human is by no means a stable sensor platform. At the previously mentioned hackathon, developers put together a rough proof of concept with a smartphone, using its camera to recognize a painted line on the ground and provide left/right audio cues.  As the project developed, the smartphone was attached to a waist belt and bone conduction headphones were used,  which don’t affect audio situational awareness as much as normal headphones.

The shaking and side to side movement of running, and varying light conditions and visual obstructions in the outdoors made the problem more difficult to solve, but within a year the developers had completed successful running tests with [Thomas] on a well-lit indoor track and an outdoor pedestrian path with a temporary line. For the first time in 25 years, [Thomas] was able to run independently.

While guide dogs have proven effective for both daily life and running, they cost approximately $60000 over an average working life of 8 years, putting them out of reach of many sight-impaired people around the world. Project Guideline is still in the early stages, and real-world problems like obstacles and traffic still need to be addressed, but there is massive potential.

We’ve seen a few projects focused on helping the blind navigate obstacles, usually with haptic feedback, but this is the first we’ve seen that would allow independent running. Modern smartphones have incredible hacking potential, especially when you add machine learning to the mix.

7 thoughts on “Giving Blind Runners Independence With AI

  1. Nice idea, but not in the UK. Poor road/path maintenance, makes them a nightmare for sighted able bodied people, plus few if any lines on paths, and those on the roads are patchy and poor. Couple that with idiot drivers, not a good idea in practice, but is a good idea in general.

    1. >idiot drivers
      As a daily riding/commuting motorcyclist in the UK, I have a lot more issues with cyclists and runners causing dangerous scenarios than I’ve had with 4 wheelers, especially on country roads in the winter.

      Buy a treadmill or an exercise bike if you value your safety and the safety of others.

  2. Would be great if self driving car tech could be downsized to a wearable device guiding the visually impaired recognizing and warning the person about obstacles, dangers and guiding the runner away from moving vehicles on a collision course from all angles. Feedback with audio, haptic, or through a tongue exciter or a combination.
    This could also help people with a hearing impairment.

    But this is a good step in the right direction.

  3. Lots of bike paths have a dividing line neatly painted and usually in good shape. Just keep a little to the right (or left). If on a sports track though which line?

    Our city has had to rip up curb cuts to comply with fed regs and it has made a mess all across the US with the rusting steel toe stubbing plates and their stains at every street corner and curb cuts eliminated in places bringing back random step-off curbs at some intersections. I had a friend on his bike loaded with groceries at night hit a curb where there should have a cut and was recently. Some people have mobility issues and wheels don’t work well on curbs. This is retarded.

    With 5G and all the smarts coming there will be a free app that will be able to map out sidewalks and streets and “paint” an image for the blind. Start hackin’ this challenge. Not only old streets and sidewalks but a worn footpath in the woods should be able to be mapped and visualized to greatly aid blind users. Maybe it can be used for sighted but blinded texters whilst in typing mode when crossing the street, as in blank-screen-keys here.

  4. Inspirational work. About the feedback mechanism, I always wondered if a blind person would appreciate a 2d metal pin art style feedback where pins are pressed onto the skin by a servo of some kind to show the environment.

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