AMHERST - An electronic system developed by Aura Ganz, professor of
electrical and computer engineering at the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst, allows visually impaired people to
safely navigate unfamiliar buildings using a 3-ounce electronic
device and a Bluetooth headphone.
The system, called PERCEPT, uses radio frequency identification
tags (RFID) placed throughout a building as audio landmarks. When
a visually impaired person tunes into these electronic signposts
with a reading device, the system provides verbal instructions
through the headphones. Ganz heads a research team working on the
project through a three-year, $380,000 grant from the National
Institutes of Health/National Eye Institute.
Unfamiliar buildings pose a challenge for blind and visually
impaired people. Current training programs to help them, including
at UMass, require memorizing a large amount of information for
many buildings each semester, and this can lead to confusing and
Ganz is working to deal directly with the problems facing
vision-impaired people when they try to get around. She has a
pilot project in the works. "We do have a basic prototype of the
PERCEPT system already built," Ganz says. "It will be installed by
June of 2011 in the Knowles Engineering Building on the UMass
campus, where human testing will begin this summer."
At any entrance of the Knowles Engineering Building, the
visually impaired person will be able to get directions to every
room in the building at a kiosk where the PERCEPT system will
orient them with audio instructions. The kiosk has an outline of
the building layout represented using raised and Braille alphabet.
Using the kiosk, you enter a desired floor, room number or another
destination, such as a restroom or elevator, to get simple
directions spoken into the headset. As the user follows those
directions, the hand-held PERCEPT device can scan the RFID tags
that serve as signposts along the way, and further directions are
relayed to the headset.
The project has been conducted with suggestions from Carole
Wilson, the certified orientation and mobility specialist from the
Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, located in Springfield.
She is also helping Ganz by recruiting 20 visually impaired
subjects from around western Massachusetts to test the PERCEPT
system in the Knowles building. These are people unfamiliar with
the UMass Amherst campus.
It's important that the test subjects have no prior knowledge
of the building layout, Ganz says.
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