Shoes that tell you the map of a mall; glasses that vibrate when near an object; apps that identify objects for you; list of devices are such long when it comes to assistive navigational devices in the market. When in countries like USA themselves where the infrastructure accessibility is far better, people invent and use such devices, in countries like India where accessibility still remains a word, people get excited and long for such devices when they hear/read about them. Two such devices that are widely demonstrated and discussed in India are the smart canes and the glasses. No doubt, they are going to share the writing pad this time.
What is a smart cane? If you want an official definition, here it is:
The “Smart Cane” is an innovative device that can be mounted onto a traditional white cane carried by the visually challenged. It uses ultrasonic sensors to detect obstacles at up to three metres. The range of the detected obstacles is conveyed to the user using vibratory signals with differentiated characteristics.
It is designed as a user-detachable unit and is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, such as those commonly found in mobile phones and digital
cameras. – www.phoenix medicalsystems.com
In other words, a smart cane is a device with ultrasonic censors that work like a batt in detecting objects. However, these censors can detect objects only above knees and objects lower than that will be taken care of by the traditional white cane on which the device is attached. The user can adjust the position of these censors to up, straight and low as per their requirements. The device vibrates when it detects an object/person at a distance of three metres. As you move closer to the object, the frequency of vibration increases to indicate that you are nearer the object. In India, this project is a join venture by Saksham Trust, Delhi, IIT, Delhi and Phoenix Medical Systems, Chennai.
When testing its usability, I can easily say it is an excellent innovation as it is portable, battery powered and affordable. However, smart cane is not designed with the intelligence to differentiate between objects and human beings. It doesn’t have location censor too. So it vibrates even in a crowded place like a bus stop or on a train which would confuse the blind/visually impaired user. It does not have censors for the sides and so will not be able to indicate anything on either sides. But this is acceptable as the user anyway would get to know as he/she taps the cane. So it is advisable to switch off the smart cane when you reach a crowded place and use the traditional cane, the mobility training experts say.
Smart glasses are mostly the same in India as I heard from one founders of an organization who had had the opportunity of witnessing a demo. However, deep readings reveals that the developed countries have been testing glasses which are intelligent to read bus numbers, street signs and so on. These intelligent glasses are still under researchers’ hands and so we have to wait until they hit the market.
During one discussion with an NID (national Institue of Design) graduated engineer, my friend and I shared some points:
1. Smart cane should be aided with cameras
2. It should be network enabled to use location based services
3. It should have the text to speech function to describe the location/object/person information
4. It should allow the user to connect an earphone with it.
The reply wee got is that it is not at all difficulty in this tech-enabled world. However, it needs lot of funding and building these systems on a smart cane will make it an expensive affair to buy for a visually challenged user.
The current smart cane is surely a development in navigational accessible technologies and the goodnews is that some NGOs give these smart canes for free for students. Only if the scientists, funding organizations, marketing organizations join hands to make it more affordable, intelligent and useful, accessibility will become more meaningful in many people’s lives.