The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Visionary Eye

PERCEPT wireless scanning system enables the blind to navigate buildings with ease
  • Subject tests the PERCEPT system in the Knowles Engineering building.

Once the technology-testing phase is complete, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority system (MBTA) is interested in piloting PERCEPT in their Boston stations.

According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people worldwide suffer from vision impairment, 39 million of whom are blind. To address their daily struggle to navigate new environments and live independent lives, UMass Amherst computer engineer Aura Ganz is harnessing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems to develop technologies that aid the disabled and save lives.

Though Ganz has been working with wireless networks for most of her career, the more recent ‘smartphone’ explosion has led her to develop PERCEPT, an indoor tool for the visually impaired that has caught the attention of state legislators and transit officials interested in deploying the system in public buildings.

PERCEPT utilizes passive RFID scanning, step-by-step audible directions, and touchscreen technology to enable the blind to navigate buildings at their own ease. The system is based on strategically installed microchips, or ‘tags,’ that emanate a radio frequency, and a device that ‘reads’ the information. Ganz and the team are refining the system so that any smartphone can serve as an RFID ‘reader.’ The ‘tags’ are placed near doors within a building, allowing individuals using PERCEPT to check-in to locations by pressing their smartphone reader to the pre-installed tag. By mapping the physical space onto a digital space, PERCEPT acts as an ‘indoor GPS’ to guide users to their destinations.

Ganz is the director of the 5G Mobile Evolution Lab, whose mission is “elevating human potential through technology.” She and the team have installed the PERCEPT system in the Knowles Engineering building on campus and have received high acclaim from visually impaired test subjects. Of those tested to date, 98 percent were able to use PERCEPT to independently and successfully navigate the building. Ganz explains that she and her team have developed virtual orientation instructions—training that the blind typically receive from the state’s mobility instructors. The training can be difficult as it requires a great deal of memorization and the instructors cannot be with trainees at all times. Ganz has worked closely with instructors from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind to ensure PERCEPT enhances existing orientation methods and is widely accessible at minimal cost.

“When you see how much difference you can make in their lives and how you can improve the quality of life that they have, it really gives you a boost of energy and conviction…I think that’s actually what fuels me,” says Ganz.

Ganz hopes her work with PERCEPT helps shift policy to accommodate the vision impaired, and on a federal level recommends a clause in the American Disabilities Act that would require the installation of PERCEPT in public buildings. Once the technology-testing phase is complete, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority system (MBTA) is interested in piloting PERCEPT in their Boston stations. With disabled veterans in mind, Ganz and her team of researchers are also brainstorming ways in which PERCEPT might be modified to assist people with traumatic brain injuries and cognitive disabilities.

“There are many veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq that really suffered greatly for our country and they should be helped. I think there is a huge drive to help them restore their daily lives,” Ganz says.

Ganz’s research team includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Their work has earned them pilot funding from the National Science Foundation, and continued funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In another research project, Ganz and her team have received $1.6 million in NIH funding to develop DIORAMA, a computerized disaster-management response system that will enable first responders to evacuate disaster victims 50 percent faster than current practice. Triage typically begins with locating and tagging victims according to the degree of injury, and the DIORAMA system incorporates ‘smart tags’ into the protocol. This allows rescuers to digitally map the disaster site, share important information with other responders, and more quickly identify victims in most critical need. From tornadoes to explosions, DIORAMA can be used in any mass-casualty situation.

Ganz’s innovative research applications provide opportunities to develop and deploy advanced technologies that meet a range of medical and societal needs. Research Engineer James Schafer says his time in Ganz’s research laboratory has landed him invaluable experience.

“We do work outside, which is nice in this lab…to actually go outside and work with the EMS team and also work with the visually impaired. It’s quite a wonderful experience to have,” says Schafer.

Amanda Drane ('12) and Diana Alsabe ('15)