Smart suitcase, app to help the blind navigate airports safely

Washington: Scientists have developed a smart suitcase that warns blind users of impending collisions and a smartphone app that can help people with visual disabilities to navigate airport terminals safely and independently. Developed by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in the US and IBM, the navigation app called NavCog provides turn-by-turn audio instructions to users on how to reach a departure gate — or a restroom or a restaurant. The rolling suitcase, called BBeep, sounds alarms when users are headed for a collision with a pedestrian. Both proved effective in a pair of user studies conducted at Pittsburgh International Airport in the US, researchers said.

NavCog app employs Bluetooth beacons to give audio directions to users. It relies on a map of the terminal that has been annotated with the locations of restrooms, restaurants, gates, entrances and ticketing counters. Ten legally blind people tested the app using a smartphone with good results, traversing the terminal’s large open spaces, escalators and moving  walkways with few errors. Most users were able to reach the ticketing counter in three minutes, traverse the terminal in about six minutes, go from the gate to a restroom in a minute and go from the gate to a restaurant in about four minutes.

A team, including researchers from the University of Tokyo and Waseda University in Japan, developed BBeep to help with another problem encountered in airports — navigating through crowds. The assistive system has a camera for tracking pedestrians in the user’s path and can calculate when there is a potential for collision. A rolling suitcase itself can help clear the way and can serve as an extended sensing mechanism for identifying changes in floor texture.

BBeep, however, can also sound an alarm when collisions are imminent — both warning the user and alerting people in the area, enabling them to make room. A series of beeps begins five seconds before collision. The frequency of the beeps increases at 2.5 seconds. When collision is imminent, BBeep issues a stop sound, prompting the blind user to halt immediately.—PTI

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