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Japan-developed 'AI suitcase' tested as replacement for guide dogs

Miraikan director Chieko Asakawa is led from the facility to the nearest station by the "AI Suitcase" she developed, in the Aomi district of Tokyo's Koto Ward on Jan. 26, 2023. Following laws set by the Road Traffic Act, she also uses a cane. (Mainichi/Tomohiro Ikeda)

TOKYO -- An automated device that aims to serve the same purpose as guide dogs for the visually impaired was taken on its first outdoor test run here on Jan. 26.

    Chieko Asakawa, the device's fully blind developer, is also the director of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, also known as Miraikan, in Tokyo's Koto Ward. During the demonstration run, she commented, "Normally, I'm careful to walk straight. I was impressed I could get to the station with so little hassle."

    Asakawa got the idea for the device and began its development in 2017 after obtaining help from businesses. After users set their destination, the device uses cameras and laser sensors to automatically move ahead while avoiding obstacles. Navigation is also provided to users through headphones.

    The device had earlier been tested indoors. For the outdoor test run, its wheels were made larger to enable it to overcome bumps. It is equipped with a highly precise GPS system that enables the device to determine its position within a 10-centimeter margin of error.

    During the demonstration, Asakawa walked along a road from the Miraikan to the nearest station. At some points, the device was surrounded by people and couldn't determine its location, but Asakawa was still able to walk at a brisk pace of up to 4 kilometers per hour.

    The device will continue to be tested in front of the Miraikan between Jan. 28 and Feb. 6 by visually impaired people who applied to try it out. Soon, Asakawa wants to make the device available for hire at airports, shopping centers, stations and other such places where people's range of movement is limited.

    Asakawa hopes the device will become the third major mobility aid for the blind, after canes and guide dogs. "I'd like those with visual impairments to be able to enjoy walking around town even more than they do already," she said.

    (Japanese original by Tomohiro Ikeda, Science & Environment Department)

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