July 3 (UPI) -- A pair of researchers from France and Switzerland have designed a robot to help visually impaired children navigate classroom environments.
Lead researcher Alexandre Foucqueteau, a student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, named the robot Cellulo.
The miniature robot scoots around the floor as directed by a visually impaired student. As the robot bumps into obstacles, it identifies the object -- whether a table, chair or bookcase. The robot can help visually impaired school children gain their bearings and develop an understanding of the classroom layout.
The technology sounds simple, but training the robot to interact with a variety of inanimate objects wasn't easy. Researchers wanted the robot to successfully identify objects, but they also wanted it to be helpful.
To ensure the work would prove beneficial, Foucqueteau sought the help of research partner Agnieszka Kolodziej, a doctoral student in cognition and language at the University of Toulouse who is studying how blind people learn language and gain spatial awareness.
"I spent five months observing classes of visually impaired children aged between three and nine years old," Kolodziej said in a news release. "The classes were very mixed, and the learning tools available did not really meet their needs. Thanks to our partnership with EPFL, we've been able to come up with a really fun and interactive project."
The robot isn't so much a guide dog as it is a memory and learning tool.
"This is how it works: the robot stops, moves back and vibrates when it touches something," Foucqueteau said. "The child then has to say what the robot has hit. If the child is spatially lost and doesn't know, the tablet can say what it is -- the crayon cupboard or the teacher's desk, for instance."
Foucqueteau made sure to design a hardy, durable robot that can constantly bump into large, solid objects without suffering structural damage.
Foucqueteau is now working to perfect the robot's software so as to diversify its abilities and make the robot even more interactive. He hopes to develop gameplay features, such as a virtual treasure hunt, to further enhance learning.