Walking stick maps surroundings and identifies grocery store items

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have used artificial intelligence technology to enhance the capabilities of white canes

Woman with a cane at a train station
Getty/Halfpoint Images

Engineers from University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) have developed a ‘smart’ walking stick to help those with sight loss complete daily tasks.

Scientists at CU Boulder’s Collaborative Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Lab incorporated a camera and computer vision technology to a white and red cane.

The walking stick is capable of mapping and cataloguing its surroundings, as well as guiding the user with vibrations in the handle and spoken directions.

Trials were conducted to explore whether the assistive technology could help a user select a seat in a room with obstacles and other patrons.

“Imagine you’re in a café,” CU Boulder doctoral student, Shivendra Agrawal, shared.

“You don't want to sit just anywhere. You usually take a seat close to the walls to preserve your privacy, and you usually don't like to sit face-to-face with a stranger,” he added.

During experiments, a sighted person wearing a blindfold used the ‘smart’ walking stick, which was connected to a laptop contained in the participant’s backpack.

The laptop used algorithms to identify different features within the room and calculate a route to the ideal seat.

In results reported at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (23-27 October, Kyoto, Japan), researchers highlighted that study participants were able to find the correct seat in 10 out of the 12 trials.

Scientists are now exploring how the walking stick can help those with sight loss select items at a grocery store.

Users can scan the shelf with their walking stick in order to identify the correct product.

The researchers plan further work to develop the technology – including making the system more compact so it can run off a smartphone attached to a cane.

“Our aim is to make this technology mature but also attract other researchers into this field of assistive robotics,” Agrawal said.