By Lynne Shallcross
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
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
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,"
And while no one will disagree that
Manduchi and his students'
technologies help a greater cause,
some might think they're pretty
Lynne Shallcross is Associate
Editor of Prism magazine.