The researchers also developed a low-power chip, for processing the 3D camera data, that consumes only one-thousandth as much power as a conventional computer processor executing the same algorithms.
Using their chip, the researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) built a prototype of a complete navigation system for the visually impaired.
About the size of a binoculars case and similarly worn around the neck, the system uses an experimental 3D camera. The user carries a mechanical Braille interface developed at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), which conveys information about the distance to the nearest obstacle in the direction the user is moving.
"There was some prior work on this type of system, but the problem was that the systems were too bulky, because they require tonnes of different processing," said first author Dongsuk Jeon, from MIT's Microsystems Research Laboratories (MTL) at the time of the study.
"We wanted to miniaturise this system and realised that it is critical to make a very tiny chip that saves power but still provides enough computational power," said Jeon, now at Seoul National University in South Korea.