Toyota's first wearable aims to improve mobility for the blind

Technological advances have opened up new avenues of exploration to people with disabilities. Toyota's Project BLAID aims to develop the first wearable device to help the visually impaired. 

Toyota is taking a unique turn with its first foray into wearable technology. Rather than investing in smartwatches and fitness trackers, the world's second largest carmaker is developing a device designed to empower the visually impaired.

Project BLAID aims to help people who are blind and visually impaired better navigate the world around them, Toyota Partner Robot Group announced on Monday.

In recent years, new technologies have opened up whole new avenues of communication, dexterity, and exploration to people with disabilities. Text and video messaging have provided the hearing impaired with new ways to communicate. Remote controlled drones and robots have helped the bedridden explore beyond their immediate world. Breakthroughs in prosthetics have helped amputees regain their agility and dexterity.

Toyota's technology will be a horseshoe-shaped device worn around the shoulders that helps the visually impaired "see" their environment. Equipped with cameras that can identify everyday indoor spaces such as restrooms, escalators, stairs, and doors. BLAID devices can direct visually impaired users toward specific locations through vibrations and speakers. 

“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,” Simon Nagata, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Toyota Motor North America, says in a press release. “We want to extend the freedom of mobility for all, no matter their circumstances, location or ability.”

Toyota engineers and the Toyota Partner Robot Group have been working together for the last four years to understand the needs of the blind community. Project BLAID is a subset of the company’s outreach initiative, The Toyota Effect. 

Along with sight-assisting technology, Toyota’s larger outreach initiative includes a partnership with the Yellowstone National Park Foundation to generate zero-emissions power for a ranger center, a partnership with Harbor-UCLA Medical Center to help patients keep their sight, and ACE Metal Crafts to help keep manufacturing jobs in the US.

“Globally, the United Nations estimates, 650 million people – 10 percent of the world population – live with a disability, making them the world’s largest minority,” reported Monitor correspondent Lee Lawrence. “There is no question that, to many with impairments, the modern world can still prove a daunting and sometimes downright inhospitable place.”

While canes, dogs, and other GPS devices help the blind navigate the outdoors, these same aides can’t direct users to specific indoor locations, such as an exit door. 

“I think mobility is really at the core of me being an independent blind man,” says the narrator of a promotional video by Toyota. “BLAID could change my life.” 

And such initiatives have the potential to incite widespread change by creating societal awareness. At the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Phil Stafford talks to Lawrence about progress “on the cultural front.” 

“I think that those without disabilities have a kind of taken-for-granted perspective on the world that we are shocked out of when we understand what daily barriers people might encounter,” explains Stafford.   

In the future, Toyota plans to add facial recognition technology to BLAID devices. 

It is still unclear how much Toyota’s BLAID technology will cost customers. That's an important factor considering almost half of America’s 20.6 million blind or visually impaired population has a family income of less than $35,000

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