Major Retailer Tests Robots for Blind Shoppers

One large national retailer has started quietly testing a university-created robot designed to help visually impaired consumers navigate store aisles and find their desired products.

The robot—named RG, for Robotic Guide—is the creation of Vladimir Kulyukin, an assistant professor of computer science at Utah State University and the director of the university’s Computer Science Assistive Technology Laboratory.

The initial version of RG—which weighs about 22 pounds and is roughly the height of an upright vacuum cleaner—is limited to three basic functions.

First, it guides the consumer through the aisles and around people, displays and merchandise using RFID readers and 16 ultrasonic sonars. The navigation system is sophisticated enough to handle environments—including elevators and limited open spaces—that usually literally trip up robots, Kulyukin said.

The university has posted quite a few videos of RG in various stages of testing.

Its second function is to communicate with the consumer. It takes instructions via a small Braille directory of products that is attached to the robot’s handle, and it replies to the shopper’s questions with spoken answers.

The third function is to use its RFID reader to locate the desired products. The store’s RFID tags help the robot navigate the lanes as well as locate products.

“There are RFID sensors placed on the shelves in the store. The robot has the RFID antennae and detects the presence of those tags,” Kulyukin said. “That’s how it knows it’s reached the Colgate section of the toothpaste shelf and it then announces, “You have reached the Colgate toothpaste section, on your right.'”

The robot has its limitations, though. Until item-level tagging becomes the norm, the system can indicate only the part of the shelf where the product is supposed to be. If it’s been moved—either by an employee moving stock who forgot to move the update the RFID tag or by another consumer who put a tube of Aim toothpaste amidst the Colgate—the visually impaired consumer might grab the wrong product.

“It certainly can be jumbled, and there is the potential to pick up the wrong product,” Kulyukin said, adding that his team is trying to add a robotic bar code into the system so that the robot would announce the product being placed in the cart. That functionality would likely address most of the mistaken product purchases, he said.

The robot’s development is still at a very early stage and has thus far mostly been paid for with a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Kulyukin said. He is negotiating with a large national retail chain to buy the units and invest in its further development.

Kulyukin refused to identify the chain, but an employee in the university’s public relations department, Whitney Wilkinson, said the chain was indeed Wal-Mart. Kulyukin also said Wal-Mart was testing it locally.

Shortly after this story appeared, Wal-Mart attorneys and a representative a Wal-Mart’s public relations department called Wilkinson and others at Utah State. Wilkinson then stepped back from her comment, explaining that she meant that the local outlet of Wal-Mart had been testing the robot and that she had no knowledge of anything beyond that. Kulyukin said that the local Wal-Mart store was using the robot for its customers and that any references to “negotiating” with Wal-Mart were about the terms of the usage.

Kulyukin also said that there is a large national retail chain exploring a financial investment in his department’s robot, but he continued to decline to identify the chain.

The store manager of the Wal-Mart store in North Logan, Utah, right near the university’s labs, confirmed that RG had arrived.

“It’s a great thing for the customers who don’t have their eyesight,” said Wal-Mart store manager Ron Tuttle. “We have a lot of customers who come in and ask for someone to help them. I talked with one lady and she was very excited about it because it makes her feel more independent.”

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