Giving the gift of sight

For 285 million visually impaired people, the world is a dangerous place. A wrong step could lead to a catastrophic fall or collision. So, for the past seven years, University of Rhode Island biomedical engineering Adjunct Professor Eugene Chabot has been pioneering technology to make the world safer for those without sight.

Chabot and his students believe that their sophisticated algorithms can turn a simple camera and vibrators held on a belt into de facto eyes.

“There’s definitely potential for a great benefit,” Chabot says. “It makes you feel good that you could potentially impact a large part of society.”

Adjunct Professor Eugene Chabot
Adjunct Professor Eugene Chabot

The latest incarnation of Chabot’s system consists of a cell phone camera held on the head with an elastic headband connected to a 2×2-inch circuit board and a belt with vibrators. The camera, a gyroscope and an accelerometer serve as eyes, relaying information about motion using algorithms developed by Chabot and his students. Those, in turn, activate different vibrators to allow a person to infer direction, size and location of motion.

For example, a car approaching from the left would set off vibrators on the person’s left side. A fast car perhaps would cause a rapid succession of vibrator activations corresponding to the direction and speed of motion.

Researchers have long explored vibration as a substitute for vision, a field known as haptic technology. Chabot says his project is unique in trying to combine vibration with reduced amounts of information, namely motion information. He’s primarily trying to understand just how many vibrations a person can comprehend. One could easily attach hundreds of tiny vibrators to a person, but the overwhelming quantity would be impossible to decipher.

Chabot was inspired to take on the project while an undergraduate studying computer engineering at the University of Rhode Island. A friend handed him a book profiling animals that rely on senses other than sight to navigate the world. For example, bats use sonar as their vision and many insects rely on touch rather than what humans define as sight. The book fascinated Chabot, who started developing the device in earnest as a doctoral student at the University.

“Nature has a lot of unique systems that we don’t completely understand,” Chabot says.

Understanding them takes time. Implementing them takes money. Chabot aims to keep implementation costs low and envisions a device costing less than $150. For his experimental designs, he used off-the-shelf products.

“With assistive technology there’s usually a small market so you really have to choose general purpose components to keep the cost down and encourage production,” he says.

Then there’s the fashion statement. No one wants to wear a clunky device on their head all day, especially in social settings. With that in mind, Chabot has kept the devices small and foresees integrating them into a pair of sunglasses.

Helping him to reach that goal are three senior engineering students. Chabot brought them into the fold through the senior capstone design project he teaches. The course, required for all students, allows students to leverage their classroom learning with a real-life project.

Biomedical engineering senior Garabed Tashian says the experience has been rewarding, and not just educationally.

“At first this project wasn’t personal for me. I don’t have anyone in my family that is visually impaired,” Tashian says. “But as I continued working on it, I realized how much this would help those who suffer from visual impairment and it was just motivation to work.”