BRINGING GARDENS TO BLOOM FOR THE BLIND

The colors, textures and landscaping at Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is all but hidden from people who are blind and visually impaired.

But not for long.

Christina Walinski, a Virginia Commonwealth University engineering student, and her professor, Dianne T.V. Pawluk, Ph.D. are creating a device that could aid those with impaired vision to experience the garden on their own.

The project began when officials approached Pawluk, an associate professor in VCU’s Biomedical Engineering Department and an expert in developing devices and software programs for assistive technology applications for people who are blind and visually impaired.

Pawluk saw in the garden’s inquiry an opportunity for a senior design project. Walinski, one of Pawluk’s former rehabilitation engineering students, now a senior, was the ideal candidate.

“I love nature,” Walinski said. “The opportunity to share nature with others through a wireless device is a demonstration of my engineering education.”

With Pawluk’s guidance, she is honing her concept of a wireless garden device that would use radio frequency identification (RFID) and its electromagnetic fields to transfer data from a tag to an RFID reader. This technology would allow an individual to listen to pre-programmed information about plants and flowers.

“We are looking at creating an application for a hand-held, auditory-based device that uses radio frequency identification with tags placed in key locations in the garden,” said Pawluk. “The successful design of this prototype has the potential to make a difference in the lives of blind and visually impaired people.”

Making a difference also is a goal for the garden, said Randee Humphrey, director of education at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

“A device that could allow us to share our garden with people who are blind and visually impaired is aligned with the garden’s education mission and our passion for connecting people and plants to improve our community,” said Humphrey. “This is one of several partnerships between the garden and VCU and we’re grateful to the university for sharing its expertise.”

“The opportunity to share nature with others through a wireless device is a worthwhile demonstration of my engineering education.”

– Christina Walinski