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Smart Suitcase That Also Doubles to Help Persons with Visual Impairment Navigate the Airport​

May 07, 2019

This is one suitcase designed to do much more than hold vacation gear — like help people without sight to see.

It’s called BBeep, a suitcase on wheels that can assist travelers with low vision or loss of sight to navigate crowded airport terminals and avoid collisions.

Developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and two universities in Tokyo, BBeep is equipped with a camera that keeps an eye on pedestrians in the user’s path.

The smart suitcase emits a series of beeps as a traveler walks toward pedestrians in his or her path, with the frequency increasing as he or she gets closer. If a collision is imminent, the suitcase will sound an alarm for its user to stop walking.

“Sighted people will usually clear a path if they are aware of a blind person,” said Chieko Asakawa, IBM distinguished service professor in CMU’s Robotics Institute. “This is not always the case, as sighted people may be looking at their smartphone, talking with others or facing another direction. That’s when collisions occur.”

BBeep and NavCog, a smartphone-based navigation system that helps people with visual impairments find their way through the terminal, are two initiatives created in partnership with Pittsburgh International Airport.

The goal is to develop technologies to enhance traveler experiences and airport operations — ones designed to make Pittsburgh International “the smartest airport on the planet.”

CMU and the authority signed a memorandum of understanding in April 2018 to formalize a relationship that started several years ago. As part of the deal, the university has its own space at the airport.

“We’re thrilled that this is a project we can talk about. We’re excited to be part of it and we hope that it makes a difference for people who are visually challenged,” said Christina Cassotis, the airport authority’s CEO.

Researchers are presenting their findings involving BBeep and NavCog this week at CHI 2019, the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in Glasgow, Scotland.

Such devices are important, said Ms. Asakawa, who lost her sight at the age 14, because airports can be challenging for people with visual impairments to navigate independently.

NavCog, which utilizes hundreds of Bluetooth beacons placed throughout Pittsburgh International’s X-shaped airside building and the ticketing level of the landside building, already is available for free from the App store.

The App, developed by CMU and IBM, provides turn-by-turn instructions to help travelers find their way to their gate, restrooms, restaurants, entrances and ticket counters.

While a number of airports have deployed Bluetooth beacons, they typically are used to enhance services for sighted travelers, according to Kris Kitani, assistant research professor in the Robotics Institute.

NavCog, which has been used in shopping malls and on campuses, including CMU’s, was modified for use at the airport.

To help with the effort, the airport authority spent $12,700 to install 750 Bluetooth beacons on the ticketing level of landside and in the center core and four concourses on airside.

According to the university, 10 people who are legally blind were able to navigate Pittsburgh International’s open spaces, escalators, and moving walkways with few errors while using the App.

For most, it took about six minutes to traverse the terminal and a minute to go from a gate to a restroom or about four minutes to go from a gate to a restaurant.

On BBeep, CMU was assisted by researchers from the University of Tokyo and Waseda University in Tokyo.

At Pittsburgh International, the smart suitcase was tested by having six travelers with visual impairments wheel the device with one hand while using a white cane with the other as they walked through crowded areas.

They took five similar routes using three options — one in which the suitcase gave no warnings, a second where it issued warnings through a headset, and a third in which it gave warnings through a speaker.

In the end, the speaker mode proved to be the most effective in clearing a path for the user and in reducing “the number of pedestrians at risk of imminent collision,” according to CMU.

“People were noticing that I was approaching and people were moving away … giving me a path,” one user is quoted in a release provided by the university.

While the NavCog App is available to travelers, BBeep is still in the research stage.

The partnership with CMU, Ms. Cassotis said, allows for testing to be done in real world situations.

She said the airport and the university are working on other smart initiatives designed to make life easier for travelers, not only in the existing terminal but as part of the proposed $1.1 billion modernization.

Beyond BBeep and NavCog, the airport, with the help of CMU, eventually hopes to provide the technology to take the traveler from parking lot to gate in the most efficient way.

As envisioned last year, that one day may even include getting an exact time to arrive at the security checkpoint.

“We’re really interested in making sure the terminal works for everyone,” Ms. Cassotis said.

Source: Pittsburgh Post Gazette