PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - APRIL 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 8
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ON CAMPUS: A Higher Vision - UCSC grad student Dan Yuan shows the virtual white cane in action and up close.

By Lynne Shallcross

STUDENTS AT UC–SANTA CRUZ ARE USING COMPUTER ENGINEERING TECHNOLOGY TO HELP THE BLIND.

When you're a student in engineering professor Roberto Manduchi's class, your goal won't be to design the newest, neatest, most sensational gadget around.

"It's not just a matter of making a device that is cool," says Manduchi, an assistant professor of computer engineering at the University of California – Santa Cruz. Much more important, he says, is carefully considering a problem in society and creating an appropriate tool to alleviate it. It's with this goal in mind that Manduchi and a handful of his students are designing assistive technologies for the blind, aimed at improving blind users' navigation skills using recent advances in computer vision.

Manduchi and the students are working on a laser-based virtual white cane designed to replace the long and rigid, traditional white cane. Although the traditional cane helps blind users survey the area in front of them, it's not well-suited for all situations – especially highly populated areas. The virtual cane, for which the initial prototype was designed by UCSC graduate student Dan Yuan, is about the size of a flashlight. The laser is paired with a digital camera and computer processor to analyze spatial information as the users scan it over the area in front of them. The cane then communicates information back to the users via audio signals; Manduchi says a tactile interface is also in the works.

Yuan and Manduchi have high hopes for how the virtual cane could help the blind community. "We are expecting to see in the future that the blind use this tool as if they watch the world using their own eyes," Yuan says.

A second assistive technology from Manduchi's classroom is a small tag designed to help a blind person navigate to or through buildings. The tags – small colored labels with barcodes – could be placed in specific locations, such as a doctor's office or a classroom. A hand-held computer with a camera would recognize the tags and direct the user to a destination. "MapQuest for the blind" is what Manduchi has dubbed yet another project. With this technology, he and his students envision a blind person being able to navigate a map on the computer using a "force-feedback mouse," which would give off physical sensations to help users feel their way through the map.

Manduchi and his students are collaborating on the projects with the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, a nonprofit research institute in San Francisco. Manduchi says Smith-Kettlewell's researchers help him and his students stay connected to the reality of the problems and the needs of potential users. "That is a very important collaboration," Manduchi says. "I rely on Smith-Kettlewell to give me the user feedback."

Working with Smith-Kettlewell helps Manduchi and his students avoid "disconnect" – or what Manduchi calls the gap between engineers and the human side of the problem. Even if his students don't plan on continuing to work on technologies for the blind, Manduchi says he emphasizes the need to consider the human aspect of all engineering problems. Simply creating the coolest engineering solution on paper won't suffice. "We do need to build prototypes that work—we can't just come up with beautiful ideas," he says.
And while no one will disagree that Manduchi and his students' technologies help a greater cause, some might think they're pretty "cool," too.

Lynne Shallcross is Associate Editor of Prism magazine.

 

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