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Japan firms develop suitcase to guide visually impaired, tech may supplant assist. dogs

IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa is seen demonstrating how to use a suitcase equipped to lead people with visual impairments safely to their destinations, in Tokyo's Koto Ward on Feb. 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Munehisa Ishida)

TOKYO -- Five companies including IBM Japan Ltd. and Shimizu Corp. are co-developing a smart suitcase designed to guide people with visual impairments to their destinations, the firms announced on Feb. 6.

A demonstration using a prototype, currently under development, is scheduled for June 2020. Companies plan to make the suitcase available to the public by 2022, with hopes that it could replace guide dogs and canes.

The carryon-sized devices are equipped with artificial intelligence (AI), cameras and sensors and can be taken onboard aircraft. Users grab the handle, and say where they want to go out loud. The machine selects the best route using geographic information, and automatically leads users to their destination while steering away from other people and obstacles, moving at the user's walking pace.

IBM Fellow Chieko Asakawa, who has a visual impairment, came up with the idea for the device. IBM Japan is in charge of the AI and the control system, while Shimizu will provide robot technology. Omron Corp., Alps Electric Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. are also participating in the project. The companies expect the machines will be used primarily in buildings, such as commercial facilities and airports, for the time being.

"We would like to create an unrestrained, safe transportation (method)," said Asakawa at a press conference held in Tokyo.

(Japanese original by Munehisa Ishida, Business News Department)

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