NSF, NYU Tandon to Advance Accessibility

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a team at NYU Tandon School of Engineering a three-year $5 million grant to transform navigation and accessibility for many of the 285 million people with blindness and low vision worldwide.

The team — led by John-Ross Rizzo, associate professor in NYU Tandon’s Biomedical Engineering department — is developing Visually Impaired Smart Service System for Spatial Intelligence and Onboard Navigation (VIS4ION), a wearable technology platform designed to help people with blindness and low vision better understand and navigate their surroundings.

“People with blindness and low vision have unacceptably high unemployment rates, with some studies showing levels at about eighty percent,” said Rizzo in a press release. “A critical obstacle to employment is commuting difficulties and navigation within the workplace itself. This project takes a fundamental step in solving this problem.”

VIS4ION uses miniaturized sensors, such as cameras, microphones, and motion sensors on wearable devices to collect data about the user’s environment. Artificial intelligence (AI) services, running locally within the platform itself and remotely in the cloud, process the sensor data to interpret the environment and tell the user where to walk, what to avoid, and how to maneuver through hazards.

NSF also awarded NYU Tandon a Phase One Convergence Accelerator grant to support its early VIS4ION work. This is the second phase of the VIS4ION project. In the first phase, the team built a lightweight wearable VIS4ION backpack prototype with cameras, on-board processing, and audio and haptic feedback.

The team will continue to improve VIS4ION services while reducing the wearable’s size and weight. The goal is a commercially available wearable product, a breakthrough that user advocates have sought for years.

“We believe, if successful, it can significantly improve [their] quality of life and unlock their potential to contribute fully to the communities in which they live,” Rizzo said.

Dell Technologies, another NYU WIRELESS affiliate, will provide critical Dell Precision rack workstations to enable cloud-based AI microservices for the wearable.

“Using Dell Precision rack workstations equipped with powerful GPUs, NYU can run computing-intensive tasks, such as real-time object detection and vision-language models, to expand and improve the AI services on the wearable,” said Charlie Walker, senior director and GM, Precision Workstations, Dell Technologies.