How an AI-powered walking stick could help those who are visually impaired

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Posted at 10:46 AM, Feb 08, 2023

Charley Sullivan has been navigating the world while blind for more than 70 years.

"My mother taught me at a very young age— I could do anything," Sullivan said.

The 72-year-old says the inability to see doesn't hold her back in day-to-day life.

“I take care of my own house, I clean my own house, I cook," she said. "I, you know, I bake some, I do laundry," Sullivan said.

She admits there are times when she needs help. Each week a friend drives her to a grocery store and helps her shop. It's a task that would be hard for Sullivan to do on her own.

“Well, you kind of have to ask for directions, trying to ask people who are there because you’re not going to know,” Sullivan said.

It is people like Sullivan who researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder believe could be helped by the “smart” walking stick they’re developing.

The walking stick is outfitted with cameras that use artificial intelligence. It collects data and images over time, gets smarter on its own and can develop the ability to identify objects and surroundings.

"Imagine yourself in a cafe. You just don’t go into a cafe and take the first seat. You seat yourself in a comfortable place,” says Shivendra Agrawa, a Ph.D. student at the Univesity of Colorado Boulder.

Agrawal is testing the technology in a lab where a mock-grocery store shelf holds several cereal boxes. 

"Move to the left, move to the right, go ahead and grab the item," the system's speakers tell the person who is holding the walking stick in a demo.

The researchers hope the technology could one day identify nutrition labels on boxes and be a financially fair option for those who need help.

The cost to train a guide dog can be as much as $30,000, according to Guide Dogs for America.

“Guide dogs can be extremely expensive to train and then the annual upkeep on the companion can be somewhat high, that doesn’t scale that well, not nearly as well as we’re hoping our solution will be," said Bradley Hayes, a computer science professor.

Researchers also believe this technology can keep people safe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a person over 65 is twice as likely to be injured in a fall than someone without vision problems.

Sullivan is recovering from a broken hip, multiple surgeries, and an infection related to a fall in 2022.

“I think that would be tremendously helpful," she said when she learned of the smart walking stick technology.

Researchers say the walking stick is still years away from being available to the public, the next step will be taking it out of the lab and putting it to the test in real-world environments, which can be more unpredictable.

For now, Sullivan has advice for everyone.

"If you see a visually impaired person and you see them walking in a store, in a mall, why not take a second and ask, 'Can I be of assistance to you in some way? Do you need help? That would certainly be very helpful,” Sullivan said.