Could Virtual Guide Dogs Replace the Real Thing?

About 285 million people around the world are blind or visually impaired, according to the World Health Organization. In fact, every minute, one person loses their vision.

To help these millions of people navigate the world safely and independently, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a device that “will help us in walking in a city, going everywhere alone,” opera star Andrea Bocelli, whose foundation is a sponsor of the MIT Fifth Sense project, told MIT News.

The researchers created a low-power chip that can process 3-D camera data in a device about the size of a binoculars case, which is worn around the neck or on a belt.

“There was some prior work on this type of system, but the problem was that the systems were too bulky, because they require tons of different processing,” researcher Dongsuk Jeon told MIT News. “We wanted to miniaturize this system and realized that it is critical to make a very tiny chip that saves power but still provides enough computational power.”

The new chip uses just one-thousandth as much power as a typical computer processor while running the same algorithms, MIT News reports. The researchers plan to miniaturize the device even further.

Since the experimental 3-D camera developed by Texas Instruments is somewhat of an energy hog, the chip contains a circuit that’s able to quickly compare each new frame to the one that preceded it. If the frames don’t change, the chip recognizes the user is resting, and sends a signal to the camera that lowers the frame rate and saves power.

The device also has a mechanical Braille interface, developed by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), onto which information from the camera is conveyed.

“This system distinguishes walkable free space from obstacles and identifies a few important types of objects, such as the location of a chair or the distance to a stairway,” the Andrea Bocelli Foundation (ABF) explains. This information is then translated into navigation directions for the user.

“There are many problems that have been solved for visually impaired people, but a real one that is still open is navigating and walking alone in a safe way, going around in a big city,” Bocelli said during a demonstration of the device at a Milan event.

Once this device becomes available, it may make white canes obsolete, but could it also put guide dogs out of work?

Probably not. While some visually impaired people prefer to use just a cane because they’re allergic to dogs, don’t like them, or find them inconvenient, others prefer the companionship of guide dog, and that preference is not likely to change. Some people use both a cane and a guide dog, so one day they may use both the virtual device and a dog.

As Diane McGeorge, founder of the Colorado Center for the Blind, wrote on the website of the National Federation of the Blind, ”There are times when I enjoy using my dog very much, and at other times using my white cane is much more efficient.”

Photo credit: Niall Kennedy / Flickr


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Crystal G.
Crystal G2 years ago

No. What about the emotional support and protection?

Charmaine C.
Charmaine C3 years ago

Thanks for the article. A combination of both perhaps? Technology can be wonderful!

CLAUDE Hennie3 years ago

I am conscious that there's a real problem concerning the lack of dogs. .
This system may be a substitute for a while, but it can't give love, and it ears nothing.
Luv' U all !

Virginia Smith
Virginia Belder3 years ago


Philip Watling
Philip Watling3 years ago

A Guide Dog is more than just eyes - and often ears - for the user/owner.

Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn3 years ago

Many thanks to you !

Sara G.
Sara G3 years ago

Technology can't replace the emotional support of a loving companion.

Billie Sue B.
Billie Sue B3 years ago

Hard cold plastic can never replace love.

vicky T.
vicky T3 years ago

Sounds like a wonderful invention, but I have to say, I don't really trust technology... I always have this feeling something is gonna crash, restart on its own, give bugged outputs or freeze! Perhaps combining this with a guide dog would give the most reliable (and adorably furry) results....