Tag Archives: visually impaired

Scientists devise self-navigating cane for visually impaired

Credit: Andrew Brodhead.

Personal navigation has come a long way since asking a stranger for directions was one of your best bets for reaching an unknown destination. With GPS and the world wide web at our fingertips, finding your way around has never been easier, even when traveling to a foreign country. The visually impaired, however, have not been able to enjoy the benefits of this remarkable technology, many being restricted to walking canes whose design and functionality have changed much.

Researchers at Stanford University want to flip this paradigm on its head. Taking cues from the same obstacle-detecting technology that allows autonomous cars to travel on busy roads without human input, the researchers have devised a high-tech yet affordable walking cane that similarly helps the visually impaired to navigate their environment.

The augmented cane features a number of sensors and is largely made from off-the-shelf parts. The navigation software is based on open-source code. In fact, anyone can assemble their own version of this augmented cane as the study comes with a list of parts and soldering instructions, perhaps for a friend or relative who would find one useful.

“We wanted something more user-friendly than just a white cane with sensors,” says Patrick Slade, a graduate research assistant in the Stanford Intelligent Systems Laboratory. “Something that cannot only tell you there’s an object in your way, but tell you what that object is and then help you navigate around it.”

Credit: Andrew Brodhead.

This isn’t the first smart walking cane, but it’s probably the most versatile and affordable on the market right now. According to the study’s authors, other canes with similar functionalities can weigh up to 50 pounds (22 kg) and cost at least $6,000. In contrast, the Stanford design only weighs 3 pounds (1.3 kg) and its parts cost $400.

The parts include a LIDAR sensor, a 3D laser scanning technology originally developed in the early 1960s for submarine detection from an aircraft. It works by generating a laser pulse train that hits various surfaces and obstacles in its way. By calculating the time it takes for the laser pulse to reflect back to its source, the cane provides real-time information about various stationary or moving obstacles directly in front of it.

A motorized, omnidirectional wheel attached to the tip of the cane is constantly in contact with the ground’s surface, which provides live feedback to the cane’s user.

Other sensors include GPS, accelerometers, magnetometers, and gyroscopes — the kind of hardware found in a smartphone — that monitor and track the cane’s geographic location, speed, and direction.

All of these sensors feed real-time information to an AI that controls robotic actuators in the cane to automatically steer the user towards an objective while navigating obstacles. For instance, the visually impaired user may set their destination to a convenience store or a local coffee shop. On the way there, the cane gently tugs and nudges, either left or right, so the user can move around obstacles.

The cane was tested in the field by both visually impaired and blindfolded sighted volunteers who had to use the augmented cane to navigate through hallways and traverse outdoor waypoints.

“We want the humans to be in control but provide them with the right level of gentle guidance to get them where they want to go as safely and efficiently as possible,” says Mykel Kochenderfer, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and an expert in aircraft collision-avoidance systems.

Compared to the conventional white cane, the augmented cane allowed the volunteers with impaired vision to walk about 20 percent faster. Sighted volunteers with blindfolds walked nearly 35% faster than they did while using the white cane.

But although these results are impressive, they could be even better. The researchers caution that the augmented cane is still very much a work in progress and they’d like to run more safety tests and experiments before they are ready to commercially release it to the public.

The augmented cane was described in the journal Science Robotics.

Blind CEO develops smart cane that can use Google Maps to navigate surroundings

A smart cane is enabling visually impaired people to make use of modern navigation apps. Credit: WeWALK.

Who needs to ask for directions nowadays, when you have realtime information about all nearby shops, bus stops, or grocery stores right at your fingertips? It’s so easy to plan a trip using just about any online maps service. You just plug a destination and you get all the steps you need to make and how long this would all take.

Visually impaired people, however, have extremely limited access to this kind of facility and, for the most part, have to rely on navigating their surroundings the same way they have for ages — using a walking cane.

Turkish engineers at the Young Guru Academy (YGA) and WeWALK want to change all that. The startup has developed a smart cane that uses ultrasonic sensors which relay warnings of nearby obstacles through vibrations in the handle.

The smart cane can be integrated with third-party apps via a smartphone. Credit: WeWALK.

The cane can be paired via Bluetooth with the WeWALK app on a smartphone to offer navigation instructions. Touchpad controls integrated into the cane allows the wearer to control their smartphone without having to take it out of their pockets, thus leaving one hand free for other tasks like carrying groceries.

Built-in speakers also enable the cane to inform users of nearby sites of interest, such as stores or bus stops that they might not be aware of. The cane comes with native integration for Voice Assistant and Google Maps.

This kind of technology could finally enable visually impaired people to have a taste of the GPS-based navigation apps that we’ve all come to take for granted. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 39 million people worldwide who are blind and a quarter billion who are visually impaired.

WeWALK was founded by Kursat Ceylan, who has been blind since birth.

“As a blind person, when I am at the Metro station I don’t know which is my exit … I don’t know which bus is approaching … [or] which stores are around me. That kind of information can be provided with the WeWalk,” he told CNN.

This is clearly some very exciting technology with real potential to improve people’s lives. The biggest challenge lies in pushing this product to the mass market — and the cost is a big obstacle, for the moment. The smart cane is currently priced at $500, something that most people who would benefit from it cannot afford. As the product is scaled, the developers hope that their smart cane will reach more people.