Without a sighted helper, blind shoppers have little chance of negotiating pitfalls in the aisles of stores and finding what they need. If the Robotic Guide, or RG, lives up to its creator’s expectations, they will soon be able to shop alone. The robot uses a laser rangefinder to avoid collisions, and radio frequency tags to identify and locate items. Vladimir Kulyukin, who invented the RG and is developing it in the United States with the help of four graduate students, calls it “an independence device.”
A professor in the Computer Science Assistive Technology Laboratory at Utah State University, Kulyukin began trials of the RG recently in a supermarket and discount department store in the university town of Logan. The idea came to him, he explained in a recent BBC interview, after several visually impaired people told him they had difficulty shopping independently.
“The idea is that you simply come to the grocery store, grab the shopping assistant (RG) and it leads you to the different products. When you leave the store you leave it behind,” he said. A $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation paid for the prototype, and Kulyukin is negotiating with a large national retail chain to buy the units and invest in further development.
There will be no shortage of users once the RG goes into production: there are 1.1 million legally blind people in the United States alone, according to the National Eye Institute.
CIO Insight, a technology publication, describes the RG as a PVC pipe unit about the size of a vacuum cleaner that weighs approximately 22 pounds. According to the publication, the robot’s microcontroller is attached to a laptop with which it communicates via serial cable or a wireless card. The navigation system is sophisticated enough to handle elevators and limited open spaces, which are usually barriers for robots.
The RG takes instructions from the shopper via a small Braille directory of products attached to the handle, and replies with spoken answers. It steers the shopper around pitfalls