Google is working on an early-phase research program called Project Guideline, which aims to leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to help those with blindness or low-vision to walk or run for exercise without the assistance of a guide dog or a sighted individual.

The Project Guideline team collaborated with the non-profit organization, Guiding Eyes for the Blind and their CEO, Thomas Panek, who visited Google Hackathon in September 2019 and had raised a question to a group of designers and technologists in the session that “Can we make the navigation possible for a blind runner?” Google Hackathon team decided to take on the challenge and initiated experimental research to find a solution.

The experimental technology developed by Google’s Project Guideline leverages on-device machine learning, allowing an individual to use a mobile phone, headphones, and a guideline painted on the ground to independently walk and run.

To operate the system, the runner needs to attach the mobile phone to a custom harness, which is wrapped around the waist. The machine learning algorithm on the device uses smartphone’s camera to identify guideline painted on the road, and the system guides the runner to stay on or closer to the guideline through audio clues sent to a bone-conducting headphone. The system makes the sound louder in one ear the further they stray to the side, helping the runner come back on the desired path closer to the guideline.

Project Guideline Background and Tests Video. Video Credit: Google

The Project Guideline team had to manage a number of challenges in the algorithm, such as varying levels of light or shadows or leaves or cracks on the road that interfered with the system’s machine learning-driven vision system. The app does not need an internet connection to work and operate the machine learning algorithm on the device.

Between August and October 2020, the system was tested by Thomas Panek, and multiple other volunteers with complete or partial blindness, many of whom have never walked without a cane or a guide dog. Google is accepting collaboration request from organizations and individuals, who are interested in further developing and testing the technology.

Google has rolled out a number of other features in recent years to assist blind and vision-impaired people, such as detailed spoken walking directions in Google Maps and Google’s Lookout app, which can give users an audio cue if there’s a possible obstacle in their path and read documents out loud.

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