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Monday, 10 June 2024 10:12

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT develops next-gen mobility tech to assist visually-impaired people

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Guide Dogs NSW/ACT partnered with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) to build the next generation of mobility aids for people who are blind or have low vision.

The project is worth $1 million. TPG Telecom Foundation and the Australian Research Council funded the partnership.

New Ernst & Young research commissioned by Guide Dogs Australia found that over 80% of those living with low vision and blindness faced regular navigation challenges in public that significantly impacted their confidence and participation in society.

The findings highlight the impact this research project is set to have in enhancing independence and increasing access to the community.

Guide Dogs NSW/ACT cited the case of Sydney-based Andrew Downie, aged 75, who was born with Congenital Glaucoma.

Andrew was a dog handler at first but as he became more confident navigating with a cane and assistive technology, he switched tools permanently.

As a firm believer and avid user of assistive technology and its future, Andrew now assists with Guide Dogs NSW to explore and test new tech options including the partnership project with UTS.

"I had very limited vision until the age of 15 and none since, so have always heavily relied on different navigation techniques and tools to assist me,” he said.

“I trained with a Guide Dog aged 19 and we worked together for over a decade which helped transformed my confidence for independent travel. It was around this time, I started to use electronic travel aids (ETA’s), so when it came time for the dog to retire, I was confident to use just the ETA’s with a long cane.”

“While technology has advanced dramatically, we still have a long way to go before we have a broadly accessible and powerful ETA that provides a comfortable, safe, and practical option beyond Guide Dog or long cane.”

“This project with UTS is really exciting and progressive as it sets out to explore more viable options to those who can't or choose not to use a Guide Dog."

“Technology already affords a greater level of independence to the blind and low vision community, so we’re excited to be working with the brightest robotics researchers at UTS to explore the potential of robotics,” said Guide Dogs NSW/ACT general manager strategy and innovation Jodi Martin.

“We’re interested in how advanced robotics, sensors, and data algorithms can improve the lives of people with low vision and blindness and enable more independent, safe, and fluid mobility for the user. This could be something that’s built into a cane, used alongside a Guide Dog, or as a separate visual aid that works independently of what’s already on offer.”

“The experience and input of Guide Dogs Clients and staff with blindness or low vision will be crucial to the success of this project. The way technology looks, moves, and interacts with the individual matters. If we get all those things right, people will want to use it.”
“What we’re currently looking at is how we can interpret data from sensors to execute tasks with robotics technology. We’re hopeful that it should be able to learn behaviours that could support people with blindness or low vision as they travel around their communities,” said UTS Robotics Institute head Sarath Kodagoda.

“Navigation in complex, crowded environments is a challenge. We know that having your hands on a cane or a Guide Dog harness provides someone with a lot of contextual information with which to make their own decisions while path finding, identifying obstacles, and navigating weather and uneven terrain. We’re going to have to think carefully about how to relay all that information to a person via the next generation of assistive technology without causing cognitive overload,” Kodagoda concluded.

This first appeared in the subscription newsletter CommsWire on 07 June 2024.

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Kenn Anthony Mendoza

Kenn Anthony Mendoza is the newest member of the iTWire team. Kenn is also a contributing writer for South China Morning Post Style, and has written stories on Korean entertainment, Asian and European royalty, Millionaires and Billionaires, and LGBTQIA+ issues. He has been published in Philippine newspapers, magazines, and online sites: Tatler PhilippinesManila BulletinCNN Philippines LifePhilippine StarManila Times, and The Daily Tribune. Kenn now covers all aspects of technology news for iTWire.com.

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