A computer vision system is helping to keep runners with impaired vision on track.

What’s new: A prototype smartphone app developed by Google translates camera images into audio signals. Guidelines produces sounds that indicate deviations from lines painted on a path, enabling people to correct their course without using their eyes, according to VentureBeat.

How it works: Users strap an Android device to their belly and listen through bone-conducting headphones that provide both auditory and haptic feedback but don’t block street sounds. All processing is performed on the device and requires no Internet connection.

  • The app uses a segmentation model trained on real and synthetic data to identify yellow lines painted on the asphalt, and to ignore white ones. A separate model determines where runners are in relation to the line.
  • If the runner drifts off-course to the left or right, a synthesized tone played in the corresponding ear nudges the runner back to center. Different audio frequencies warn runners of upcoming turns and signal them to stop if the system loses sight of the line.
  • Guidelines currently works in three New York locations with specially painted road markings and requires a sighted facilitator. The team is working to paint lines in other parks, schools, and public spaces. It aims to collect data from a wider variety of users, locations, weather conditions, road conditions and so on to make the system more robust to a range of conditions.

Behind the news: Other AI-powered accessibility apps are also helping people with sensory impairments live more independently.

  • Lookout, also from Google, uses object recognition to help visually impaired people count money and identify packaged foods by their barcodes.
  • Microsoft has helped develop apps that assist visually impaired people in maintaining social distance and taking written exams.
  • Voiceitt uses speech recognition to help people who have difficulty forming words communicate more clearly.

Why it matters: Apps like this could bring more independence to the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who have a serious visual impairment. And they might help people who can’t see get around town for activities other than exercise.

We’re thinking: Some of Andrew’s early efforts in deep learning were inspired by the work of BrainPort Technologies, which showed that you can take an image, map it to a pattern of pressures on a blind person’s tongue, and thereby help them “see” with their tongue. This raises an intriguing question: Is there single learning algorithm that, depending only on the input data it receives, can learn to process either vision or touch?


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