A group of Japanese companies is developing a suitcase-shaped robot that uses AI to help blind and visually impaired people to travel independently.
The small navigation robot will scan the user’s location and map data to identify the best route to their destination. It will then guide them there through voice and haptic technology that transmits vibrations transmitted through the suitcase handle.
While they travel, the suitcase will analyze data from video cameras and distance sensors to identify and avoid any obstacles that emerge in their path, and assess whether the behavior of people nearby requires the user to take actions such as joining lines.
It will also include an interactive conversational feature that can notify users if a friend is approaching or if there stores nearby where they may want to shop.
Chieko Asakawa, an IBM Japan fellow who has vision problems, came up with the idea when she was pushing a suitcase during a business trip, according to the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese national newspaper. She realized that adding sensors to the device could help visually impaired people to walk around more safely.
“It’s impossible for visually impaired individuals to walk around town alone freely and safely,” Asakawa said. “I want to make that possible.”
The project will bring together different expertise from a range of companies. IBM Japan will be responsible for the AI, Alps Alpine will provide haptic technology, Omron the image recognition and sensors, Shimizu the navigation system, and Mitsubishi the automotive technologies.
They established a consortium to improve accessibility and quality of life for the visually impaired, whose numbers are rising due to age-related declining vision and eye diseases. A study published in the Lancet Global Health medical journal predicted that the number of blind people in the world will triple to 115 million by 2050. The consortium believes that the AI suitcase will help them to be more independent.
The group will first conduct pilot experiments to identify the requirements for a prototype device, which will be opened to the public in June 2020 at a commercial complex in Tokyo.
After the pilot, they plan to roll the suitcase out in airports, commercial complexes and other indoor facilities before refining the technology for outdoor use.