Vodafone Netherlands has developed a 5G-based system to help the visually impaired Dutch paralympic cyclist Tristan Bangma navigate races. Specially designed for Bangma, the prototype features in Vodafone’s latest advertising campaign on 5G services.
Bangma, who has only 1 percent vision, normally relies on a co-pilot cycling on a tandem bike to help plan the route. This role is taken over by two scanners on the bike that check the route and watch for other cyclists. The images are sent as audio information via a 5G connection and external computer to a headset that Bangma wears. The system helped the cyclist cover 50 km. unassisted on the track.
The prototype uses LiDAR scanners on the front and back of the bike to map the route. The computer takes the 2D images and converts these to a 3D map and then a so-called “8D” audio feed, giving Bangma a surround-sound experience, delivered in real time over the 5G network.
The system will feature in a Vodafone campaign highlighting the possibilities of 5G technology, and it has been given to the Handicap sport foundation to develop further.
This bespoke vision-free navigation system is intriguing on a number of levels, and as mobile operators look for ways to more fully utilize their emerging 5G capabilities, it points to possible future endeavors.
Of course, we realize that the system Vodafone designed for Tristan Bangma is not likely to be broadly marketable in its present form, since there are very few blind cyclists. Nevertheless, the system indicates several worthwhile things:
First, that 5G networks, with their ability to handle large amounts of data rapidly can be used to create new technologies that go far beyond the ordinary demands of mobile smartphone use or even the more common IoT applications such as industrial automation and product tracking.
Second, that mobile, real-time wayfinding using unconventional sensory inputs is possible using 5G coupled with emerging technologies such as LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging, which uses lasers to measure distances and then create 3D maps). This type of system could easily find applications beyond aiding the blind to ride in bike races, for example, helping people who are visually or otherwise disabled to navigate life’s more ordinary hurdles. Beyond that, workers who have to function in low- or no-light environments such as mines or caves or in industrial facilities where vision is impeded could benefit greatly from this kind of system, so that it would appear to have potential in both the consumer and enterprise markets.
And third, that mobile operators can be at the forefront of these kinds of developments. Usually we read about MNOs working in tandem with technology partners when they bring innovative systems like to market, but in this case it appears that Vodafone Netherlands accomplished it on its own. Either way, though, as operators seek to distinguish themselves from competitors both inside and outside the telecom space, innovating with 5G and non-traditional products such as this one is an excellent path to take. Demonstrating its capabilities via Tristan Bangma’s cycling feats is bound to be powerful publicity for Vodafone, but the ultimate value of this technology lies in its flexibility and broader applicability.