Shawn Dobbs craves being able to prepare his own meals, select his favorite
compact disc from the music store or purchase grocery store items on his own,
despite being blind.
A portable bar code scanning device, developed by a team of four Rose-Hulman
electrical engineering and computer engineering seniors, may open frontiers of
independent living for blind and visually impaired persons.
"I would rather use this type of device than to borrow someone else's eyes,"
said Dobbs, who currently needs to be guided by a personal assistant when
The handheld device adapts technology found in an advanced Personal Digital
Assistant (PDA) with an infrared scanner that converts a product's bar code into
a verbal command to alert the user about the type of product selected.
A prototype of the device was demonstrated earlier this year 19 to the news
media, Rose-Hulman faculty and administrators of the Indiana School for the
Blind, which originally approached Rose-Hulman to see if students could produce
devices to help its students.
The next stage is review of the product by American Printing House for the
Blind, a Louisville, Ky.-based company that produces and markets supplies for
the blind, and further product development by Rose-Hulman students or faculty.
Proving the conceptual realities of the product, Anna Yokel, a senior
electrical engineering major from Cincinnati, Ohio, scanned two identically
looking soup cans, one for chicken noodle soup and another for broccoli and
When scanned, the device produces a verbal command (Yokel's voice) about the
item selected: The company producing the product (Campbell's), type of product
(broccoli cheese or cream of chicken and mushroom soup) and the product's
nutritional value (calorie content). Other commands, like item prices, could
become an added feature in the future.
A total of 15 common grocery items, including cereal boxes, crackers and
canned vegetables, were identifiable by the prototype, which was developed in 19
weeks as part of the students' Capstone senior design project.
Other members of the team were Doug Pickering, an electrical engineering
major from Pittsburg, Kan.; Ryan Horner, an electrical engineering major from
Portage, Ind., and Dan Walter, a computer engineering major from Crown Point,
Ind. The device's applications for blind and visually impaired persons are
endless, according to James Durst, interim superintendent of the Indiana School
for the Blind.
"The device allows an individual, when properly trained, independent shopping
in any store, since a majority of products have bar codes," Durst said. "This
product can relieve the frustration most blind persons have about getting out
and experiencing those things that others take for granted. This could be a big
step forward and far exceeds our expectations."
Dobbs agreed, giving examples of how the device could help him prepare meals
at home or selecting CDs at a music store.
"Now, I just pick up a can and I can't distinguish if it's a can of beans or
corn. Ten cans all appear the same to me. However, with this scanner, I could
not only find out if I picked up a can of beans, but what kind of bean: Chili,
green or lima," stated the ISB's social counselor. "And, I can add the right
ingredient to make chili at the right time of the cooking process. This is just
Seeing the reaction of Dobbs and Durst was personally gratifying to the four
"It was an ambitious project. Originally, I thought we had bit off more than
we could chew," conceded Pickering, the team leader of the project. "We took on
this product because we wanted to help people. That mission just made us more
determined to work harder."
Yokel researched the text-to-speech options as well as providing the recorded
vocal commands. Horner entered all the bar code data into the programmable PDA's
database. Walter was the key programmer for the project.
"This project really sums up my four years at Rose-Hulman," Pickering stated.
"You're drawing on multiple disciplines and knowledge garnered from various
classes. You fill in areas that you don't know about . . . We had to rely on
each other to get the project done on time. Each member of the team was
essential to the overall success of the project."
Meanwhile, a group of mechanical engineering students is designing a system that
will help blind persons enjoy bowling. That project, another idea coming from
ISB, should be completed this spring.