'Sighted' wheelchair gets first test drive

Posted by Kate Taylor

A team at Sweden's Luleå University of Technology have developed an electric wheelchair that can 'see' for its user.

The wheelchair has a joystick for steering and a haptic robot that acts as a virtual white cane. With the help of a laser scanner, a simplified 3D map is created of the wheelchair's surroundings.

The 3D map is transferred to the haptic robot so that a visually impaired wheelchair driver can feel obstacles such as open doors or approaching people and navigate around them.

"This may be important aids for the visually impaired who are wheelchair users. Many have already been in touch with me and asked if they can come for a test drive," says the chair's developer, professor Kalevi Hyyppä.

The chair's been tested by Daniel Innala Ahlmark, a prospective graduate student in the research project, and himself visually impaired. He tried it out in a busy corridor at the university with many open doors and passing people.

"I feel safe when I run it, it is like using a white cane," he says.

But there's still a lot of work to do, says Hyyppä. The laser beam that sweeps in front of the wheelchair only works at a certain height, and can't see things at all if they're higher up or lower down.

The team now plans to develop a 3D camera that can do a full 3D measurement, and reckons it should have this up and running in around five years.