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Sophomore develops virtual “eye” for blind

Maitri Mangal is part of a Binghamton University team that hopes to develop a device that can act as “eyes” for the visually impaired.

The team uses Google Tango, a device that surveys its environment using a 180-degree camera and creates a 3D map that is saved into a GPS. When it returns to a previously visited place, the Tango recognizes where it is and loads the map.

Mangal, a computer science major, and her colleagues started this work through the Image and Acoustics Signaling stream of the Freshman Research Immersion program at Binghamton University. Shaun Canavan, an assistant research professor, bought the Tango and some other devices for the lab.

“It’s impressive that freshmen and sophomores are tackling this stuff,” Canavan says. “This is graduate-level work.”

The team wants to modify the Tango application so that it can detect a dynamic environment in real time, and install the application into a wristband or a necklace that can be worn by people who are blind. The goal is to be able to use this device to navigate the environment.

The team’s first step is to program the Tango to detect the closest object in its view and process where it is in real time. Tango is not able to recognize changes to its environment, and has to create a new map every time something moves.

“Say there’s a table, for example,” says Mangal, a sophomore from Vestal, N.Y. “I don’t need to be concerned about the table if I’m sitting here. But if I’m walking towards the table, then I need to be able to know it’s there in time.”

Mangal hopes to modify the Tango so that it is constantly remapping its environment in order to detect the changes. Eventually, the application should even be able to identify what an object is.

“At some point in the future, you want to know if there is a snake versus a cat,” Mangal says. “If there’s a snake right there, you need to be warned.”

Mangal began conducting research while she was still in high school. She has worked on a proof-of-concept for an airport navigation app and participated in NetSci High, which gets students involved in studying network science.

“Python for me is a second language,” Mangal says.

Mangal plans to go to graduate school. Beyond that, she’s interested in pursuing entrepreneurship and innovation. “Just creating proof-of-concept for me isn’t satisfying,” Mangal says. “I like seeing a product right in front of me.”

Mangal says this passion became clearer last summer, when she designed an app for USA Today during an internship. “Research has given me the tools to go and create products,” she says. “I definitely want to go more towards that route.”

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