FEATURE:Japanese AI travel bag for visually impaired sparks global interest

Japanese researchers and companies have joined forces to develop an innovative guidance robot called the “AI Suitcase” to help visually impaired travelers navigate their surroundings with ease.

The groundbreaking assistive technology recently underwent its first overseas public trial, garnering significant interest and sparking discussions about its future practical applications.

During the event in March at a hotel in Anaheim, California, the device’s English voice from a smartphone declared, “System starts. Set destination.”

The CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, where the “AI Suitcase” was introduced, is held in Anaheim, California, in March 2023. (Kyodo)

Trial participant Hector Elias, a blind employee of a major U.S. financial institution, then grasped the handle of the small four-wheeled suitcase that would serve as his guide as he set off from a room on a guest floor of the hotel.

For the test, the development team set the destination as a guest room a few dozen meters away. By the time the suitcase becomes commercially available, they hope users will be able to operate it from their own smartphone apps.

To make a right turn down a corridor, a button on the right of the handle vibrated to alert Elias to change directions, and when a cleaner appeared ahead, the system sensed a presence and paused. Elias seemed happy with how the test went, saying, “Next time I want to try it at Disneyland near here.”

Chieko Asakawa, inventor of the “AI Suitcase,” is pictured in Anaheim, California, in March 2023. (Kyodo)

The artificial intelligence suitcase was conceived by Chieko Asakawa, a top engineer at IBM Corp. and the current director of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, or Miraikan, in Tokyo. Four companies, including Kyoto-based Omron Corp., are collaborating on development.

The AI Suitcase offers features that surpass those of traditional smartphone guidance systems, providing enhanced safety and environmental awareness. By staying one step ahead of the user, the self-propelled suitcase ensures seamless navigation, while its integrated sensors assess the surroundings.

Asakawa, who lost her eyesight at the age of 14 due to an injury, envisions a future when the visually impaired will be able to “walk around museums at their leisure and thoroughly enjoy traveling alone.”

Amos Miller tries out the “AI Suitcase” in Anaheim, California, in March 2023. (Kyodo)

Amos Miller, president of an IT venture and a former Microsoft Corp. engineer who is also blind, was impressed. “The benefit of a system that guides you to your destination, especially in unfamiliar places, is great,” he said after the event.

Asakawa and her development team have conducted a series of tests of the technology at locations including Miraikan and Coredo Muromachi, a busy commercial facility in Tokyo’s Nihombashi.

Their decision to conduct public overseas trials stems from a sense of urgency to make the technology viable not only in Japan but also internationally.

“It is important to have people from all over the world understand the technology, so we go out and listen to what they have to say,” she said.

Many opinions were shared during the trial, ranging from how individuals with diverse physiques can utilize the guidance technology to its operation in crowded spaces.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” Asakawa said.


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