Researchers at Caltech have developed a mobile, four-wheeled robot that could help refine artificial retinas and other prostheses used by the visually impaired.
At first glance, Cyclops resembles a bot you might find on the battlefield, and it's hard to imagine what connection it could have to restoring sight. But dig a little deeper and it starts to make sense that a remote-controlled robot with an onboard camera could deliver some very useful data.
The digital camera can emulate left-to-right and up-and-down head movements. The idea is that as artificial vision prostheses increasingly become a reality, scientists could use the mobile robotic platform to mimic those devices--and more importantly, to get a better sense of how well they work for people who wear them.
The researchers might do that by asking the robot outfitted with an artificial vision aid to navigate obstacles in a corridor or follow a black line down a white-tiled hallway to see if it can find--and enter--a darkened doorway. All the while, they could try out different pixel arrays (say 50 pixels vs. 16 pixels), as well as image filters (for factors such as contrast, brightness enhancement, and grayscale equalization) to venture an educated guess as to what settings maximize a subject's sight.
But "we're not quite at that stage yet," researcher Wolfgang Fink says of such independent maneuvering. Fink is a visiting associate in physics at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., and founder of the school's Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory, where where he and Caltech visiting scientist Mark Tarbell are collaborating on Cyclops with the support of a grant from the National Science Foundation.
The pair designed and built the body of the battery-operated rover using off-the-shelf parts, then furnished it with an onboard computing platform that allows for processing and manipulating images in real time using software they created called "Artificial Vision Support System."
Cyclops, so named because it's monocular, is about 12 inches wide by 12 inches long and 10 inches tall (the camera can be mounted on a mast to make Cyclops the height of an average person). It weighs about 15 pounds, Fink estimates, and can move at an "expedited walking speed" of about 2 to 3 feet per second.
For now, the platform itself is controlled remotely, via a joystick, and can be operated through a wireless Internet connection. "We have the image-processing algorithms running locally on the robot's platform," Fink says, "but we have to get it to the point where it has complete control of its own responses."
Once that's done, he adds, "we can run many, many tests without bothering the blind prosthesis carriers."… Read more