Network system to support visually impaired people

Visually impaired people often find that they go shopping and cannot choose appropriate colors for the products they are buying, or do laundry and cannot match pairs of socks. A new software system shown at the Real World Computing Project's final exhibition, held last week in Tokyo, is designed to solve such problems. With the system, friends or family members supporting visually impaired people can help them anytime, anywhere.

The system was developed by the Japanese government agency National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) using software that transmits voice and video via the second-generation wireless PHS (personal handyphone system) network, and light-weight devices incorporating a small video camera, an earphone and a microphone. AIST itself does not plan to commercialize the system, but offered it as a way of showing how wireless network infrastructure can be used in unique ways.

The user, who is on the move alone, wears either a glasses-type device or an earphone-shaped device. The devices are connected to a notebook PC. Using a PHS handset attached to the PC, users can call their supporters for help, show them what they need help doing via a small video camera placed in one of the devices, and explain what sort of support is needed via a microphone.

The supporter, using a PC, can receive images of what is happening in front of the user and instruct the user through voice communication via the PHS network. Video control, such as fine-tuning resolution of the image, can be done by the supporter.

The AIST used PHS because the network offers transmission speeds up to 64k bps (bits per second), faster than Japan's other existing second-generation mobile telecommunication systems such as PDC (personal digital communications), or CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access).

NTT DoCoMo Inc. launched the world's first commercial 3G (third-generation) mobile telecommunication service in Tokyo areas, using W-CDMA (Wideband Code-Division Multiple Access) on Oct. 1. The service, which has a maximum download speed of up to 384k bps, allows for video conference calls.

A system such as the one AIST demonstrated potentially will be able to use 3G videophone cameras, which would eliminate the need for users to carry PCs with them. However, the resolution of current 3G videophone cameras is too low for supporters using the system to accurately recognize things in front of the user, said Iwao Sekita, an AIST engineer. However, Sekita added, "PHS also proves that the system works anywhere between a remote area and a cosmopolitan city."

At the exhibition, a supporter in Tokyo helped a visually impaired user in northern Japan's Yamagata Prefecture distinguish between a can of soda and a can of coffee, to help the user make the correct purchase.

The RWC project was started in 1992 by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry for the promotion of new information technology. The 10-year-project has marked its final year and last week's exhibition was held to show research achievements to date from 54 laboratories from all over the world.

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