While the National Federation for the Blind is pushing to build an auto interface that lets visually impaired people drive safely and autonomously, design student Selene Chew has a more modest technological breakthrough to help the 285 million people who are blind or partially blind: The BlindSpot cane, a clever and empathetic technological attempt to create new opportunities for social interaction for the visually impaired by harnessing GPS technology and non-visual interface design.
"I took the approach to serve their emotional needs more than just their physical needs," she says. So, for her design program at the National University of Singapore, she built a prototype white cane that doubles as a GPS-enabled smartphone with a tactile and audio interface that lets a blind user walk more confidently while navigating social settings a little more easily than usual.
"Their social life is dependent on the people around them. They cannot say hi to a friend without the friend saying hi first," Chew explains. A blind person could be standing right next to a friend at a bus stop and not know it. The BlindSpot cane will alert the blind friend that someone they know is nearby, and direct them to initiate a hello. That’s an empowering new ability. It’s not a pressing health issue that a blind person won’t ever see a classmate across the quad and be able to go up to them to ask about sharing notes, or that a blind child wouldn’t know his mother arrived at school to pick him up until she comes over to tap him on the shoulder. But each step toward fuller autonomy is an important one for the sensory impaired.
The friend-finding feature works because the cane contains a specially designed phone that slots into the handle and connects to a Bluetooth earpiece with an audio interface. A trackball on the handle controls the menu and points which way to go.
When a friend checks in on Foursquare (or any other location-sharing service), the cane alerts the blind user with an audio message, saying how far away the person is, down to how many steps it will take to reach them. The cane offers the option to ignore, call the friend, or, most impressively, go find them, an option blind people don’t usually get to experience.
"The tactile navigator is a directional pointer that translates GPS map directions into an 'arrow’ that points towards the way to go," Chew says.
In addition to the phone features, the BlindSpot cane also does a better job at its primary function, preventing a blind person from walking into things.
An ultrasonic sensor detects obstacles a normal cane would not, like hanging objects, rails, or other protruding structures that the ground-level sweep of a cane might miss. The product demonstration video portrays the everyday danger of a broom handle slanting out of a garbage can, for instance. A standard cane would sweep under the broom without detecting it, leaving the handle dangerously aimed right at the blind walker’s head. The BlindSpot cane senses it and beeps a warning call in the Bluetooth earpiece.
And like other minimalist white gadgets with just one button these days, the BlindSpot’s design elegance makes it easier to handle at home. The electronic components detach from the cane to charge, cable-free, on an inductive charging dock. And when the phone component is not inserted, it acts just like a regular cell phone, so you can still accept calls without the Bluetooth headset, controlling the menu with the tactile track ball on the back.
Chew is currently looking to find a partner to bring this design to market on an industrial level. She was recently recognized with second prize in the James Dyson Awards.