A New 3D-Printed System Lets Blind People 'See' Obstacles Via Vibrations



 Scientists from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) developed infrared goggles that can help blind people avoid obstacles with the aid of vibrating pads, a report from The Independent reveals.


By fitting the visually impaired with vibrating pads on their forearms, the new technology enables the users to keep their hands free while they navigate their environment. Traditional tools such as the cane always keep one hand occupied, which can cause problems for those using them.



In a new study published in preprint server arXiv, researchers Manuel Zahn and Armaghan Ahmad Khan wrote that "although the cane allows good detection of objects in the user’s immediate vicinity, it lacks the ability to detect obstacles further away." Now, their new tool "demonstrates a promising approach towards using technology to enable more independence for the visually impaired."


3D-printed vision aid

The new device uses a pair of infrared cameras inserted into 3D-printed goggles. These cameras capture a stereoscopic image that is sent to a small computer that creates a map of the user's surrounding area. This map is programmed into a 2D vibration array on a haptic feedback sleeve, with 25 actuators, that communicates the information to the user via vibrations on their forearm. Somewhat like haptic feedback features used in videogames, the haptic feedback sleeve vibrates slightly when the user is approaching an object, and more intensely the closer they get. 


As the goggles use infrared cameras, the device can even help users navigate in complete darkness, a feature that means it may be useful for other use cases. During tests, the researchers say that volunteers were able to accurately navigate obstacles with up to 98 percent accuracy. "All users were able to complete the task and showed performance improvement over multiple runs," the study explains.


In recent months, several technological advances have been announced that could greatly improve the quality of life of the visually impaired. In November last year, for example, the first 3D-printed prosthetic eye was fitted to a patient in the U.K. Advances in bionic vision systems also have great potential for helping users to regain vision via state-of-the-art technology. However, work on that technology is still in its infancy, meaning that devices such as the new haptic feedback system by the TUM researchers could greatly improve people's lives in the shorter term.

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