Tech for Good

A robot suitcase could replace canes and guide dogs for blind people

Story by Tom Page; video by Stefanie Blendis, CNNPublished 6th October 2020
(CNN) — Negotiating an airport with its labyrinthine corridors, endless escalators and myriad gates is never easy. Now imagine doing it if you were blind.
That's the challenge faced by Chieko Asakawa, a computer scientist and IBM researcher. Asakawa splits her time between the US and Japan, making the journey monthly. If traveling unaccompanied she has to be escorted by airport staff at both ends of the flight, which sometimes involves waiting and denies her autonomy.
Searching for a better alternative led Asakawa to invent a high-tech suitcase that helps get her to her destination safely and efficiently.
Packed with cameras and sensors -- many of the same technologies found in an autonomous car -- the suitcase uses artificial intelligence (AI) to map the environment around it, calculating distances between the user and objects both stationary and mobile. A mobile phone app is used to program a destination into the suitcase, which plans a route and directs the user through vibrations in its handle.
Inventor Chieko Asakawa has created a suitcase that enables blind users to navigate public spaces and avoid objects in their path.
The suitcase also features facial recognition technology, which can notify the user if a friend is nearby. It can also flag shops and other places of interest in the vicinity and direct the user to them if prompted.
The concept has been in development since 2017 in a collaboration between IBM, other Japanese companies, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, where Asakawa is IBM distinguished service professor at the Robotics Institute.
Asakawa says there are hopes to commercialize the suitcase and a pilot scheme is planned to trial it in an airport, shopping mall and other public spaces. Though the current version is too full of tech to hold any clothes, that could change in the future, she says.
A depth map created by the AI suitcase demonstrating how it detects nearby objects and surfaces.

Restless innovator

A keen runner, Asakawa harbored Olympic dreams as a child, but a swimming accident at age 11 caused her to gradually lose her sight until, aged 14, she became totally blind.
As an adult she has devoted her life to developing accessibility technology. Among her creations is "aDesigner," a disability simulator for designers to make their websites more user-friendly, and "IBM Home Page Reader," the first voice browser to allow internet access for blind and visually impaired people. Asakawa has won industry and government awards and been inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame.
"I never relax when I travel alone," she says. "I always think about what technology will help me travel easier, quicker and more comfortably." It was this restlessness that led to the AI suitcase.
She says the suitcase has other applications and could be used to help visually impaired people navigate cities, while its object-recognition technology can be utilized to identify colors -- useful when clothes shopping, says its creator.
Chieko Asakawa was inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2019.
Chieko Asakawa was inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2019.
courtesy Chieko Asakawa
Perhaps its most profound benefit is that it allows users to devote mental energy to other things. "Visually impaired people usually use a white cane or a guide dog. But using these mobility aids, we always have to pay attention (to) our surrounding world," says Asakawa. With AI providing spatial awareness, a blind person is liberated to do other things: take a call, listen to the birds; daydream, even. Public spaces become places to be enjoyed, not just navigated.
"It will open up many doors for blind people, because we'd be able to go anywhere by (ourselves)," says Asakawa.
The technology will naturally evolve, she predicts, as components become smaller, lighter and more powerful.
Without new technology, "we cannot change our society to be more inclusive," Asakawa says. "A smart suitcase is a great showcase (for) how AI and technology (can) change the lives of people with visual disabilities."