For the vision impaired, this AI robot aims to replace canes and guide dogs

This unassuming mobility aid - the Glide resembles a mini vacuum cleaner - has a lofty goal: Transform lives of the visually impaired by providing smart assistance for navigating the world.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

You know you've arrived when music legend Stevie Wonder, who is blind, takes your brand new robotic device for the blind for a spin at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Outfitted in his trademark dark glasses, Wonder pushes what looks like a miniature vacuum cleaner -- with big wheels attached to a stick -- along a corridor, makes a turn, and comes back.

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It may not look very sophisticated for a robot, but Amos Miller -- founder and inventor of the 'Glide' -- thinks it will transform the lives of those who suffer from impaired vision.

American Community Survey says that there were 547,083 children with vision difficulty in the US in 2019,  and millions more people go blind during their lives as a result of diseases like diabetes or glaucoma.

A world in darkness

Amos Miller started going blind in his late twenties because of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that breaks down the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye, called the retina.
Miller was finishing up his computer science degree and looking forward to a career in technology when he lost his sight.

He is among some 7.6 million people in the US today who have suddenly faced this devastating new reality where nothing is as it used to be. Everything has to be re-learned. 

Simple tasks -- going to the bathroom or fixing a sandwich -- become an ordeal. 

"Going to the fridge to get a glass of milk used to be something I could do half asleep; after I lost my vision it became a multi-step process, and any error meant I found myself standing, lost in a house I'd lived in for years," says Kim Tindall who, like Miller, went blind as an adult.

Tindall had to re-learn practically everything. She attending a course at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB).

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Miller started his adaptive journey by learning how to use the most pervasive and cost-effective technology that blind people employ to navigate their world -- a cane. Over time, he graduated to a service dog. Yet, the more familiar Miller became with the limitations of canes and dogs, the more convinced he was that there had to be a better way to navigate this technology-saturated world.

Now, a guide dog can serve as a much-needed companion as well as an indispensable navigational aid. 

But they don't come cheap. Guide dogs can each cost up to $50,000 to breed and train, and they age quickly. In five or six years, these dogs have worn themselves out and need to be replaced, which makes the whole enterprise both emotionally and financially taxing.

Moreover, replacements aren't exactly cheap or easily available; only around 10,000 dogs are available every year for a visually impaired population of 7.6 million.

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The cane, priced at only $35, is a much less expensive solution than the canine -- but it too has considerable limitations.

The user of a cane has to employ a technique called 'shorelining' -- essentially tracing the tip of the cane along a curb or the walls of buildings to stay on track. Getting the hang of this typically requires 100 hours of training.

Amos Miller/LinkedIn

Also, the similarity -- and problem -- with both canes and dogs is that the blind user must have a very good idea of where they're going, which means a thorough familiarity with their route, their surroundings, and markers on the way such as mailboxes and trees.

Wending your way through a cityscape blind requires immense concentration as well as the mental strength to remain unflappable during wrong turns and other navigational mishaps.

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Consequently, only 2% to 8% of those with impaired vision use canes along with the 2% who use dogs. This means that over 90% of the blind population lead intensely limited lives. 

The 'Glide' dog

As a software professional, Miller was perfectly suited to dream up a better solution.  

Miller has served as chairman at Guide Dogs for the Blind (UK), and is also a former product strategist at Microsoft Research, where he was instrumental in developing Soundscape -- an app that fosters mobility independence through audio.

It's not surprising, therefore, that Miller's Glide, 9-by-9 inches in size, is both sophisticated and bare-bones elegant.


The robot doesn't have a motor attached to its wheels--it moves around using passive kinetic guidance as a propulsive force. The user simply has to push it forward to get it moving, the robot comes to a halt when the user does.

For the visually impaired, the passive kinetic guidance is a crucial feature. The worst thing you can do when guiding a blind person is to drag them along, thereby robbing the individual of any agency or control.

Being motorless also makes the Glide incredibly lightweight. At a svelte 3 pounds, the device can be hauled over stairs quite easily, which makes it manageable and appealing.

The Glide's wheels have cameras and sensors affixed to them, which help users to either maneuver around objects or to simply apply the brakes. This is accomplished via an elegant feature -- a haptic handle (outfitted with six vibrotactile actuators) that receives feedback from the unit traversing the ground. 

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The haptic handle, in turn, relays information about the terrain to the user.  For instance, a double tap transmitted to the user's handle means "slow down." 

The Glide truly hits its stride when it comes to navigation. With apps like Google Maps integrated into the system, a user will now have a much more precise -- and reassuring -- way to get to their destination.

This also helps contribute to the in-store shopping experience -- which can be a nightmare for those who struggle to navigate their way through supermarket aisles looking for products. The Glide can plug into store apps, enabling a user to create their shopping list, after which the Glide will guide them to each item.

Glide inventor Miller says that his company, Glidance, is still working out pricing details but notes that the product's cost will be comparable to mobile phone subscription plans.

Glidance notes that its product currently is optimized for indoor use only, with development ongoing to make it ready for "more complex environments with overhangs, stairs, elevators, ramps, etc.," -- and most importantly, the outdoors.

You can sign up for a beta version that is scheduled to be released imminently on the company's website.

Also: How Google Lookout's AI can describe images for the visually impaired

As the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to increase from 58 million in 2022 to 82 million in 2050 (a rise from 17% to 23% of the population), the number of people experiencing vision loss through age-related diseases such as glaucoma or diabetes is expected to mushroom.

Glide, and its future avatars, could play a key role in mitigating the trauma associated with this surge in aging and blindness.

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