Imagine if, instead of a cane or a guide dog, the vision impaired could use a 3D camera to help them "see" the world around them.
A University of Wollongong researcher Xue Wei is not only imagining that, she's working on perfecting a 3D assistive navigation system for the vision impaired that would "speak" to the user.
Her PhD project has already impressed the judges of a national competition, with the Chinese student recently receiving an award in the Canon Australia 2012 Extreme Imaging competition.
"According to the World Health Organisation, there are 285 million visually impaired people around the world," Ms Wei said.
"Training guide dogs takes a lot of time and that situation doesn't suit every vision impaired person. There's been a lot of research into assisted navigation systems for the visually impaired and I'm focusing on the use of 3D imaging for this purpose."
Ms Wei said for the vision impaired to navigate safely in unconstrained environments, an assistive system was required for several tasks.
The main advantage the 3D camera had over the 2D variety, was that it could return distance values, which were vital for vision assistance. "It's about using the 3D camera to segment a 3D scene, to measure the distances between objects and also to classify what types of objects they are," she said.
"For each scene the information would be accompanied by text, such as 'there's a pedestrian two metres in front to your left', and that text would be converted to audio through a text-to-speech computer program.
"So it's about creating a whole assistive navigation system that would mimic the human vision system to help people with vision problems better experience their world."
Ms Wei, who is working on the research along with her supervisors Salim Bouzerdoum and Lam Phung, won a Canon Powershot G1X for her prize.
She said she was thrilled to receive the highly commended award in the competition, which rewards Australian science students making waves in scientific research.
Canon's research and development arm, Canon Information Systems Research Australia Pty Ltd (CiSRA), named the winners last month.
CiSRA general manager Geoff Woolfe said: "The competition encourages students to extend the boundaries of conventional imaging; to create and invent new ways of using imaging science to develop technologies of tomorrow."