Seeking Enlightenment: The Quest To Restore Vision In Humans

Visual impairment has been a major issue for humankind for its entire history, but has become more pressing with society’s evolution into a world which revolves around visual acuity. Whether it’s about navigating a busy city or interacting with the countless screens that fill modern life, coping with reduced or no vision is a challenge. For countless individuals, the use of braille and accessibility technology such as screen readers is essential to interact with the world around them.

For refractive visual impairment we currently have a range of solutions, from glasses and contact lenses to more permanent options like LASIK and similar which seek to fix the refractive problem by burning away part of the cornea. When the eye’s lens itself has been damaged (e.g. with cataracts), it can be replaced with an artificial lens.

But what if the retina or optic nerve has been damaged in some way? For individuals with such (nerve) damage there has for decades been the tempting and seemingly futuristic concept to restore vision, whether through biological or technological means. Quite recently, there have been a number of studies which explore both approaches, with promising results.

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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.

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Accessibility Apps Get Help From Bluetooth Buttons

Ever hear of Microsoft Soundscape? We hadn’t, either. But apparently it and similar apps like Blindsquare provide people with vision problems context about their surroundings. The app is made to run in the background of the user’s mobile device and respond to media controls, but if you are navigating around with a cane, getting to media controls on a phone or even a headset might not be very convenient. [Jazzang] set out to build buttons that could control apps like this that could be integrated with a cane or otherwise located in a convenient location.

There are four buttons of interest. Play/pause, Next, Back, and Home. There’s also a mute button and an additional button you can use with the phone’s accessibility settings. Each button has a special function for Soundscape. For example, Next will describe the point of interest in front of you. Soundscape runs on an iPhone so Bluetooth is the obvious choice for creating the buttons.

To simplify things, the project uses an Adafruit Feather nRF52 Bluefruit board. Given that it’s Arduino compatible and provides a Bluetooth Human Interface Device (HID) out of the box, there’s almost nothing else to do for the hardware but wire up the switches and some pull up resistors. That would make the circuit easy to stick almost anywhere.

Software-wise, things aren’t too hard either. The library provides all the Bluetooth HID device trappings you need, and once that’s set up, it is pretty simple to send keys to the phone. This is a great example of how simple so many tasks have become due to the availability of abstractions that handle all of the details. Since a Bluetooth HID device is just a keyboard, you can probably think of many other uses for this setup with just small changes in the software.

We covered the Bluefruit back when it first appeared. We don’t know about mounting this to a cane, but we do remember something similar attached to a sword.

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Interactive Game Board Helps Toddler Learn Colors And Shapes

Most parents would do anything to enrich their kids’ worlds and teach them what they need to know. Hacker parents often take it one step further by modifying the kid’s world to allow them to work past a disability. To wit we have an interactive game board to help a toddler learn her shapes and colors.

The toddler in question is [Becca], and her needs are special because of the progressive nature of the blindness that will result from her Usher Syndrome. [Becca] will need visual acuity testing much earlier than most toddlers, but a standard eye chart is meaningless to kids before they get their letters. This is where Lea shapes come in – a set of four shapes that are used to make visual testing a game and help practitioners assess what a child can and cannot see.

[Jake] and his wife [Beth] were advised to familiarize [Becca] with the shapes, but all she wanted to do was eat the printed sheet. In order to make the task more entertaining, [Jake] built an interactive board where brightly colored Lea shapes trigger the room lights to change to the same color as the block when it’s inserted into the correct spot on the board, as a visual reward. Reed switches, magnets, and an Arduino comprise the game logic, and the board communicates to the Philips Hue smart bulbs over an NRF24L01. The video below also shows some cool under-bed lights and a very engaged [Becca] learning her shapes and colors.

As we expected when we last covered his efforts to help [Rebecca], [Jake] has leveraged the Raspberry Pi he used as a hub for the stairwell lighting project. We’re looking forward to seeing what else he comes up with, and to see how [Becca] is thriving.

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Refreshable Braille Display And Braille Keyboard

Only about 10% of blind people around the world can read Braille. One primary reason is the high cost of Braille displays. The cost is a result of their complexity and reliability – required to ensure that they are able to handle wear and tear.

[Vijay] has been working since 3 years on a Refreshable Braille Display but has only recently been able to make some substantial progress after teaming up with [Paul D’souza]. During his initial experiments, he used dot matrix printer heads, but the current version uses tiny vibration motors as used in mobile phones. He’s converting rotary motion of the tiny motors in to linear movement for pushing the Braille “cell” pins up and down. The eccentric weight on the vibration motor is replaced with a shaped cam. Continuous rotation of the cam is limited by a stopper, which is part of the 3D printed housing that holds the motors. Another 3D printed part has three cam followers, levers, springs and Braille pins rolled in one piece, to create half a Braille cell. Depending on the cam position, the pins are either pushed up or down. One Braille cell module consists of two cam follower pieces, a housing for six vibration motors, and a cover plate. Multiple modules are chained together to form the display.

The next step would be to work on the electronics – in particular ensuring that he is able to control the motor movement in both directions in a controlled manner. Chime in with your comments if you have any ideas. The 3D design files are available from his Dropbox folder.

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Bionic Senses


Various cybernetic limb and organ replacements were recently featured in IEEE’s flash demo called The Bionic Body Shop, but we were most interested by the bionic eye and the cochlear implant (we already discussed the featured powered exoskeleton). These are notable for the fact that they are not merely high-tech prosthetic replacements strapped to or worn on the body, but implants that are housed within the body and work with flesh-and-blood sense organs on a much closer level than any preceding technology.

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