Blind Ambition

The University of Memphis' Dr. Mohammed Yeasin engineers technical solutions for the visually impaired.

When some people think of the term “blind ambition,” they associate it with being unscrupulous in pursuit of a goal. And while Dr. Mohammed Yeasin certainly is working toward a goal, his is much more of a humanitarian effort.

“I have enough in my life,” Yeasin says. “I can’t complain about anything. But there are people who can benefit from my work.” 

Yeasin, an associate professor in the University of Memphis’ electrical and computer engineering department, is heading a project called Blind Ambition that seeks to make technology more useful for the blind or visually impaired. 

He and the five students he oversees as part of the project are in various stages of creating, for example, apps for smart phones that can scan and interpret documents for users who otherwise couldn’t read them. Documents can include things such as Social Security letters or labels on prescription medicines. An existing app is called R-MAP.

“The key idea is to design a suite of applications using state-of-the-art data-mining algorithms running on a cyber-physical system,” Yeasin says. “The cyber-physical system is essentially integration of smart phones, physiological sensors, and cloud computing to provide resilient, robust, and real-time services.” 

“I have enough in my life,” Yeasin says. “I can’t complain about anything. But there are people who can benefit from my work.” -Dr. Mohammed Yeasin

One application uses a lightweight abdominal harness with censors to detect and translate emotions for people who can’t see the faces of those they encounter. The harness measures physiological responses such as heart rate and blood pressure.

Another program analyzes facial distortions and translates them into sounds — what Yeasin calls the “colors of emotion.” Since the blind tend to have a greater sense of hearing, they can be taught to recognize what emotions are being conveyed by listening to the tones, or frequencies of sound, emitted by the electronic application as it scans a human face. 

That way, the blind can more easily pick up on some of the nonverbal cues sighted people take for granted when they interact with each other. Not only that, but the technology attempts to compensate for different nuances of emotion. “It has so many different dimensions and contexts,” Yeasin says. Another application seeks to make it easier for two people with disabilities — say, a blind person and a deaf person — to communicate meaningfully with each other.

In addition to not being able to see facial expressions, the visually impaired are in particular need of help because they often have to depend heavily on those around them for even basic things. Traditionally, the devices they use to navigate open spaces can be bulky or limited. But imagine having a digital mapping system that could tell a person where and when to turn, because one of the biggest problems the blind face is how to navigate their physical environments. 

Doctoral student Iftekhar Anam demonstrates a sensor belt that straps to a blind or visually impaired person's abdomen and can measure others' physiological responses. This helps them in understanding or interpreting emotions.

The most important aspect of developing such technology is making sure it actually does some good, Yeasin says. One of the challenges he and his students have been working through is how to help a blind person position a smart phone so it can take an accurate picture of what needs to be read, whether the image is of a street sign or a food label. “To design anything for blind people, you have to have a multilayer feedback system,” he says.

Added to that is the desire to make the process as natural as possible, because many blind or visually impaired people don’t like to advertise their disability. That’s why Yeasin and his group are trying to design systems that are light and portable and fit with existing technologies such as third- and fourth-generation smart phones. Contemporary apparatus for the blind often requires heavy wires and backpacks that end up making life more difficult. 

“Many existing solutions are prohibitively costly and are not ergonomically designed,” Yeasin says. 

Yeasin’s passion for helping the disadvantaged began when he was in medical school in Bangladesh. He saw the disparity between treatment for rich and poor, and ultimately decided to switch his studies to engineering. That led him into the world of intelligent design and into the work he’s doing now.

“One of our goals sometime in my lifetime is to automate emotion, hand gestures, body language — nonverbal communication,” Yeasin says. 

Ultimately, Yeasin wants to make his assistive technology available to the blind at little or no cost. 

“If you really want to solve the problem, you have to get to its roots,” he says.  

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