Improving Service Robots with Insights from Blind People

Oct 27, 2016  |  Devices & Systems, Transportation

Robotics researchers recently set out to make technology more user friendly for blind people. What they found, however, may actually make robots more helpful for everybody – visually impaired or not.

Building-service robots (BSRs) are a popular research topic in terms of their technical capabilities, but they still aren’t very user-friendly.  User experience is always important, but it’s crucial for any disabled community with greater needs for basic tasks, such as getting around. For example, a service robot might be flawlessly programmed to take a user to a flight of stairs, but this would be a hard feat for any blind person, or someone in a wheelchair, to maneuver.

Currently, buildings rely on human resources to meet the needs of people with disabilities, and while human help is ideal, it can get expensive and difficult to manage when staff is limited.

Recognizing the potential service robots have for helping guide blind people in particular, the researchers conducted an in-depth study to learn how developers could help fill the gap between technology and user experience across large and confusing buildings, such as office complexes, shopping malls, airports and conference centers.  They did this by gathering a group of five people with varying levels of visual impairment to discuss aspects of how a robot should operate.

From there, the team evaluated results and created recommended guidelines on how a service robot should interact with and guide a blind person in an effective and socially acceptable way.

We created this robot specifically for the blind community, but by designing for an extreme use case, we realized that these service robots could be useful to everyone. – Shiri Azenkot

Some of the guidelines include:

  • Using a smartphone app to empower the user to take action in making sure the robot is there, and summoning it directly to where they’re located
  • Three modes of assistance
    • Sighted guide, where the user holds the robot as it leads the way to the destination
    • Escort, where the user and robot walk side-by-side, without direct contact
    • Information Kiosk, where the robot provides information and routing instructions, without accompanying the user
  • The robot should give oral directions including quantitative information and alerting for upcoming obstacles

 

Graphic representation of service robot usability for blind people

 

As the researchers dove into establishing these guidelines, they realized that a lot of what these robots offer blind people could also be helpful to the general population, especially when it comes to hospitality.

“When walking into an unknown place, everyone has a sort of disadvantage whether it’s being unfamiliar with the spatial lay-out or not understanding the language,” said researcher, Shiri Azenkot, “We created this robot specifically for the blind community, but by designing for an extreme use case, we realized that these service robots could be useful to everyone, making that the ultimate end goal.”

The team’s guidelines do not currently exist in an actual robot, but if developed with the proper resources, this design could be implemented in current and mainstream technology such as a TUG or Savioke robot.

Perhaps friendly robots that can be summoned to not only walk us, but also talk us, through the hallways of that foreign conference center aren’t such a bad idea.

Learn more about service robots in IEEE Xplore.

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