Toyota creates device to help blind people move around

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Toyota Motor Co. has created a wearable device that can help blind people safely move around.

The device called “Project BLAID” sits on the shoulders like a neck pillow and uses cameras to help identify restrooms, escalators, stairs and doors. It’s meant to be a supplement to guide dogs, canes and other aids the blind use to navigate.

The device has no direct link to Toyota’s automotive business. But as technology advances, car companies across the globe are increasingly experimenting with new ways to improve mobility for all people.

“Project BLAID is one example of how Toyota is leading the way to the future of mobility, when getting around will be about more than just cars,” said Simon Nagata, executive vice president and chief administrative officer, Toyota Motor North America.“We want to extend the freedom of mobility for all, no matter their circumstance, location or ability.”

Whereas a guide dog can lead a blind person to a doorway, Toyota’s device will be able to let the person know if it’s an entrance to a Starbucks or men’s restroom through speakers and vibrations. The user can communicate back through voice recognition and buttons to help locate a particular location or person. Toyota hopes to add mapping, object identification and facial recognition software to the device.

“Our intention is not to replace a cane or guide dog in any way,” said Doug Moore, manager of Partner Robotics, Toyota. “We’re trying to bridge the gap of that extra information that a cane or dog can’t do.”

BLAID is an internal project name combining the words “blind” and “aid,” Moore said. A final name for the device has not yet been decided.

The project will enter beta testing with an undetermined amount of people later this year, Moore said. The company eventually hopes to produce and sell it.

Project BLAID is the latest example of automakers experimenting with devices and technologies not directly associated with cars or trucks.

Toyota last year announced a $1 billion investment to form the Toyota Research Institute, a Silicon Valley-based facility that develops projects involving artificial intelligence and robotics. A second facility will be established near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The blind device isn’t part of the TRI, but rather part of Toyota’s Partner Robot initiative. Since 2000, Toyota has used Partner Robot to develop robots that pick up and carry objects, talk and play musical instruments. It has also developed robot arms that aid in car production.

Honda developed its ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) robot in 2000. The latest version can walk, run, climb stairs, kick a soccer ball and dance.

Ford Motor Co. last year announced it’s testing electric bicycles and uses robots to help put its cars through extreme durability tests.

“This area of understanding information from the world, processing it and responding to it is absolutely critical to any car company going forward,” Moore said. “You need to know how to work in different spaces.”

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