IBM’s AI Suitcase to help visually impaired people

A group of Japanese companies is developing a suitcase-shaped robot that uses AI to help visually-impaired people to travel independently.

Tech giant IBM, in partnership with four other companies, is developing a prototype suitcase that will use artificial intelligence to help guide visually challenged people. The company is working with Alps Alpine, Mitsubishi, Omron, and Shimizu on the smart suitcase. The prototype, which is a suitcase-shaped robot for now, was ideated by IBM fellow Chieko Asakawa, who herself has vision problems.

According to Japanese national newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, the AI suitcase will scan the user’s location and map data to identify the best route for them. It will also guide them through voice and haptic feedback, transmitting vibrations on the suitcase handle. The robot will also alert the users of approaching people and places nearby, like cafes, etc. though the audio system.

Chieko Asakawa, an IBM Japan fellow who has vision problems, came up with the idea when she was pushing a suitcase during a business trip. She realized that adding sensors to the device could help visually-impaired people to walk around more safely.

“It’s impossible for visually impaired individuals to walk around town alone freely and safely,” Asakawa said. “I want to make that possible.”

Developing the AI suitcase

The project will bring together different expertise from a range of companies. IBM Japan will be responsible for the AI, Alps Alpine will provide haptic technology, Omron the image recognition and sensors, Shimizu the navigation system, and Mitsubishi the automotive technologies.

They established a consortium to improve accessibility and quality of life for the visually impaired, whose numbers are rising due to age-related declining vision and eye diseases such as glaucoma. A study published in the Lancet Global Health medical journal predicted that the number of blind people in the world will triple to 115 million by 2050. The consortium believes that the AI suitcase will help them to be more independent.

The group will first conduct pilot experiments to identify the requirements for a prototype device, which will be opened to the public in June 2020 at a commercial complex in Tokyo.

After the pilot, they plan to roll the suitcase out in airports, commercial complexes and other indoor facilities. before further refining the technology for outdoor use.

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