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On Tech & Vision With Dr. Cal Roberts

Jul 28, 2023

This podcast is about big ideas on how technology is making life better for people with vision loss.

The white cane and guide dogs are long-established foundational tools used by people with vision impairment to navigate. Although it would be difficult to replace the 35,000 years of bonding between humans and dogs, researchers are working on robotic technologies that can replicate many of the same functions of a guide dog.

One such project, called LYSA, is being developed by Vix Labs in Brazil. LYSA sits on two wheels and is pushed by the user. It’s capable of identifying obstacles and guiding users to saved destinations. And while hurdles such as outdoor navigation remain, LYSA could someday be a promising alternative for people who either don’t have access to guide dogs or aren’t interested in having one.

In a similar vein, Dr. Cang Ye and his team at Virginia Commonwealth University are developing a robotic white cane that augments the familiar white cane experience for people with vision loss. Like the LYSA, the robotic white cane has a sophisticated computer learning system that allows it to identify obstacles and help the user navigate around them, using a roller tip at its base. Although it faces obstacles as well, the robotic guide cane is another incredible example of how robotics can help improve the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired.

It may be a while until these technologies are widely available, and guide dogs and traditional canes will always be extremely useful for people who are blind or visually impaired. But with how fast innovations in robotics are happening, it may not be long until viable robotic alternatives are available.


The Big Takeaways:

  • Reliability of Biological Guide Dogs: Although guide dogs have only been around for a little over a century, humans and dogs have a relationship dating over 35,000 years. Thomas Panek, the President and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, points out that there will never be a true replacement for this timeless bond. That being said, he thinks there is a role for robotics to coexist alongside biological guide dogs, and even help augment their abilities.
  • LYSA the Robotic Guide Dog: LYSA may look more like a rolling suitcase than a dog, but its developers at Brazil’s Vix Systems are working on giving it many of the same functions as its biological counterpart. LYSA can identify obstacles and guide its user around them. And for indoor environments that are fully mapped out, it can bring the user to pre-selected destinations as well.
  • The Robotic White Cane: Dr. Cang Ye and his team at Virginia Commonwealth University are developing a Robotic White Cane that can provide more specific guidance than the traditional version. With a sophisticated camera combined with LiDAR technology, it can help its user navigate the world with increased confidence.
  • Challenges of Outdoor Navigation: Both LYSA and the Robotic White Cane are currently better suited for indoor navigation. A major reason for that is the unpredictability of an outdoor environment along with more fast-moving objects, such as cars on the road. Researchers are working hard on overcoming this hurdle, but it still poses a major challenge.
  • The Speed of Innovation: When Dr. Ye began developing the Robotic White Cane a decade ago, the camera his team used cost $500,000 and had image issues. Now, their technology can be run on a smartphone – making the technology much more affordable, and hopefully one day, more accessible if it becomes available to the public.



  • “We’ve had a relationship with dogs for 35,000 years. And a relationship with robots for maybe, you know, 50 years. So the ability of a robot to take over that task is a way off. But technology is moving quickly.” — Thomas Panek, President and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind
  • “Outdoor navigation is a whole new world because if you go on the streets, it could be dangerous. You have to be very careful because you are driving a person, driving a human being.” — Kaio Ribeiro, Researcher at Vix Systems
  • “The first … camera we used, it's close to 500 grand. … But now … the iPhone’s LiDAR … works outdoors. … And it just took … a … bit more than 10 years.” — Dr. Cang Ye, Prof. of Comp. Sci. at Virginia Commonwealth University and Program Director, National Science Foundation
  • “It’s not the traditional … robot … that’s stiff. … We have to move into soft robotics … to accomplish the … activity … a dog can accomplish. … It’s a way off. … If … an engineering student … wants to get into soft robotics, … that’s where it will be.” — Thomas Panek


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