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Ganz Creates Seeing-eye Building Directory

Imagine being blindfolded and then turned loose, on your own, to navigate a large, strange building that you’ve never entered before. It would be like one of those sadistic, mean-spirited reality TV shows. Yet that’s precisely the predicament encountered by many of the 161 million people worldwide who suffer from vision impairment. Now an electronic system called PERCEPT, being developed by Professor Aura Ganz of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, will allow visually impaired individuals, each equipped only with a three-ounce electronic device and Bluetooth headphone, to navigate unfamiliar buildings with ease.

PERCEPT is generated using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags placed throughout a building as audio landmarks. When a visually impaired visitor tunes into these “electronic signposts” with his or her RFID reading device, the system feeds back verbal instructions spoken through the person’s Bluetooth headphones.

“We do have a basic prototype of the PERCEPT system already built,” explains Dr. Ganz, “and it will be installed by June of 2011 in the Knowles Engineering Building on the UMass campus, where human testing will begin this summer.”

At any entrance of Knowles, the visually impaired will be able to get directions to every room in the building at a kiosk, or electronic building directory, where the PERCEPT system will orient them with verbal instructions.

Professor Ganz heads a research team working on the project through a three-year, $380,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Eye Institute. The project is entitled “PERCEPT: RFID-enabled automated space for the blind and visually impaired.”

The visually-impaired encounter serious problems leading independent lives due to their reduced perception of the environment. Unfamiliar buildings pose a huge challenge for them without seeking help from others. Current training programs for blind and visually-impaired people in university settings, including UMass Amherst, require them to memorize a large amount of information for numerous buildings each semester, leading to many frustrating situations.

The whole PERCEPT project has been guided by suggestions from Carole Wilson, the certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, located in Springfield, Massachusetts. She will also recruit 20 visually-impaired subjects from off-campus in western Massachusetts to test the PERCEPT system.

“We don’t want to test it on campus-based people, because they might have some knowledge of this building,” says Dr. Ganz. “We don’t want to bias the test.”

What happens when a PERCEPT user comes into any entrance of a building wired with the system? The user boots up his or her personal RFID reading device, which scans RFID tags through the building’s WiFi network. Thus activated, the PERCEPT program, speaking to the user through his or her Bluetooth headset, verbally confirms the building name and instructs the user where to find the directory kiosk.

The kiosk is an electronic building directory with a Braille keypad similar to that on a laptop. The user fingers the keypad and enters a desired room number or some other destination, such as a restroom or elevator, to get simple directions spoken through his or her headset. As the user follows those directions, his or her hand-held RFID reader continually scans RFID tags stationed as electronic signposts along the way, and further directions are repeated into the headset.

The 20 subjects who will give PERCEPT its acid test, beginning next summer, will have an orientation to the technology but not an orientation to the building, because they are supposed to use the system without knowing anything about the building.

“That’s the purpose of the technology,” Dr. Ganz notes. “It’s created to be deployed in any building, and it’s geared toward visually impaired visitors who have never been there before. PERCEPT should work for visually impaired people entering any building for the first time. Our goal is to produce this technology for public buildings everywhere.”

Other key members of the PERCEPT research team are Professor Russ Tessier of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, who is developing the miniaturized hardware for the RFID reading device, and Professor Elaine Puleo from the School of Public Health, who is working on the experimental design. (November 2010)