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Beep Beep! Suitcase Helps Visually Impaired People Navigate Airports

Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University and Japanese researchers have created a rolling suitcase, which sounds alarms when visually impaired users are headed for a collision with a pedestrian.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Tokyo and Waseda University in Tokyo are developing a suitcase that helps visually impaired people navigate airports. 

BBeep is a roller bag equipped with a camera and speakers. The camera measures how far and fast a person is walking, and relays that information to an algorithm, which adjusts as pedestrians change their speed and direction.

“It’s basic physics,” said Kris Kitani, a head researcher at CMU’s Cognitive Assistance Laboratory and one of BBeep’s creators. “A person is a point on the ground plan. And they’re moving at a certain velocity. And then we can predict, based on that velocity, where they will be at in a few seconds.”

As people get near to the suitcase user, BBeep emits a beeping sound, which becomes more urgent the closer someone gets. Ideally, this beeping helps the visually impaired user to know roughly how far or close other travelers might be, and alerts sighted people to make way.

Bob Garrett, president of North Central Sight Services in Williamsport, PA, said technology plays a big role in helping him and other visually impaired people travel. But he’s worried BBeep might make too much of a spectacle.

“The one thing that always is important to keep in mind is that we want to have some level of dignity at all levels,” said Garret. “[BBeep] has potential, but boy, at this point I’m not real keen on the loud beep.”

Garret said he would be more interested in BBeep-like product if he were the only person who could hear the sound, perhaps through an earpiece.

BBeep is still in the design phase, similar to autonomous vehicles. In fact, the technology that’s used by self-driving cars and the suitcase overlaps as both evaluate the movement of dynamic objects in real time.

“The moment you see cars driving automatically on the streets, we’ll probably have BBeep ready to go for you,” said Kitani.

That might be in as little as five years.

WESA receives funding from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.