Toyota Working on Wearable Device for Helping the Blind

The wearable device now under development is worn around a person's shoulders and includes cameras that detect what is around them, Toyota officials said.

Toyota BLAID device

Toyota engineers are working to develop a wearable device that could one day help blind and visually impaired people "see" their surroundings through the help of sensors, cameras and audible devices that could improve their mobility.

The BLAID device, under development in Toyota's partner robotics division, will be equipped with cameras that detect the user's surroundings and communicate information to him or her through speakers and vibration motors, the company said in a March 7 statement.

Wearers of the device will be able to interact with it through voice recognition and buttons, and eventually Toyota engineers hope to integrate mapping, object identification and facial-recognition technologies into the BLAID. The word BLAID incorporates the words blindness and aid to give the project its early name.

"The device will help fill the gaps left by canes, dogs and basic GPS devices by providing users with more information about their surroundings," according to the Toyota statement. "Worn around their shoulders, it will help users better navigate indoor spaces, such as office buildings and shopping malls, by helping them identify everyday features, including restrooms, escalators, stairs and doors."

The aim of the high-tech devices is to give blind and visually impaired users greater freedom, independence and confidence as they make their way around their communities and inside their workplaces and residences.

"Project BLAID is one example of how Toyota is leading the way to the future of mobility, when getting around will be about more than just cars," Simon Nagata, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Toyota Motor North America, said in a statement. "We want to extend the freedom of mobility for all, no matter their circumstance, location or ability."

To further the development of Project BLAID, Toyota is launching an employee engagement campaign that invites team members company-wide to submit videos of common indoor landmarks that will be used to "teach" the device to better recognize impediments that can get in the way of sight-impaired users, according to the company.

"Toyota is more than just the great cars and trucks we build; we believe we have a role to play in addressing mobility challenges, including helping people with limited mobility do more," Doug Moore, manager of the partner robotics efforts at Toyota, said in the statement. "We believe this project has the potential to enrich the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired."

Similar efforts to assist blind and visually impaired people using new technologies also have been undertaken recently by scientists from IBM Research and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where work is underway on an open platform to support the creation of smartphone apps that can enable the blind to better navigate their surroundings.

IBM forged a partnership with Carnegie Mellon's famed Robotics Institute last November to create a pilot app called NavCog that draws on existing sensors and cognitive technologies to inform blind people on the CMU campus about their surroundings by "whispering" into their ears through ear buds or by creating vibrations on smartphones.

The app analyzes signals from Bluetooth beacons located along walkways and from smartphone sensors to help users move without human assistance, whether inside campus buildings or outdoors. Researchers are exploring additional capabilities for future versions of the app to detect who is approaching and what their mood is.