Imagination running wild: Eelke Folmer's moonshot projects help the blind navigate the natural world
Computer science and engineering professor blends the latest engineering advances with imaginative thinking to develop new technologies for blind individuals.
Helping blind and visually-impaired people navigate their world has been a passion for Eelke Folmer. Guide dogs and canes are important and valuable tools, but Folmer takes a different perspective: he takes advantage of smartphone technology and other computer systems to make navigation easier.
Folmer lets his imagination direct his research, whether it is developing a smart phone to guide blind people inside buildings using GIS maps, adapting gaming hardware to give blind children access to video games, or his latest project researching how to let drones guide blind runners so they can run independently on a track.
“99.9 percent of the academic research projects never leave the lab. More important than research dollars and publications is making a real difference in people's lives."
– Eelke Folmer
"This is such an interesting era, as we have so many new technologies to use, adapt and invent to enhance low-tech tools, such as a cane that blind and visually-impaired people have been using for decades," Folmer said. "Smartphone and wearables are filled with sensors, such as cameras, microphones and accelerometers. When combined we can create new types of functionality that exceed the sum of their parts.
Navatar: Navigating Blind Users in Indoor Spaces using Tactile Landmarks
Navatar, an indoor navigation system for blind individuals, doesn't require any instrumentation and instead relies on low-cost sensors available in smartphones and a digital map of the environment.
VI SKI: An Exergame to Improve Balance in Children who are Blind
VI Ski, modeled after Wii Fit SKi Slalom, relies on tactile feedback and cues to enable children who are blind to play the game and improve balance skills.