Umass Amherst Logo

PERCEPT GazetteNet

UMass Prof's Device Helps Blind People Navigate Buildings 
by Daily Hampshire Gazette

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 frustrating situations.

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.