New cane with camera, sensors may help visually impaired, researchers say

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Oct. 13 (UPI) — Researchers at Stanford University have given the traditional white cane used by the visually impaired a technological upgrade to help them better avoid potential obstacles, they said Wednesday.

Called the Augmented Cane, the new tool is equipped with multiple sensors and intuitive feedback mechanisms to guide users around indoor and outdoor obstacles and enable them to walk faster, the researchers said in an article published by Science Robotics.

The new cane also includes technology to help guide users to specific locations preprogrammed into its on-board system.

With additional refinements, the new cane could assist the more than 250 million people around the world who have difficulties moving outside their homes due to visual impairment, according to the researchers.

The increased mobility potentially would improve the physical and mental health, as well as their economic and social well-being of those living with visual impairment, the researchers said.

“Robotic devices like this one actually can help improve both navigation and mobility if they are designed in a way that people find intuitive and confidence-building,” researcher Patrick Slade told UPI in an email.

“We’ve built a device to help navigate in many situations, [and] a general solution like this could be beneficial, once improved as a product to make it lighter and simpler,” said Slade, a post-doctoral in bioengineering at Stanford University in California.

The visually impaired face a number of mobility challenges, including reduced walking speed and increased risk for accidental injury, studies have found.

Traditional white canes with a red bottom section and guide dogs are commonly used tools that help people with impaired vision remain mobile and independent, but neither are perfect solutions, according to Slade and his colleagues.

Older canes can help users avoid obstacles, but can only detect those within its length, and the availability of guide dogs is limited due in large part to training costs that exceed $40,000, research shows.

Built with open-source technology, the current version of the Augmented Cane features a camera and GPS antenna, as well as a motorized wheel at its tip to help steer the user in real time, the researchers said.

In its present form, the cane, which weighs about 2 pounds, costs about $400 to manufacture, but Slade and his colleagues hope to further refine the design to make it more user-friendly.

They hope to partner with manufacturers to streamline the cane’s development and, ideally, enable it to link with a user’s smartphone to expand its ability to respond to needs in real time, Slade said.

A similar device is in development at Virginia Commonwealth University.

For this study, Slade and his colleagues assessed the walking speeds of users of the Augmented Cane.

Walking speed was used as the key measure because it is reflective of a person’s mobility as well as their ability to efficiently avoid potential obstacles, the researchers said.

Study participants included 12 sighted adults who were blindfolded to simulate visual impairment and 12 adults with diagnosed visual impairment with experience using a white cane.

Compared to a traditional white cane, the Augmented Cane increased the walking speed of people with visual impairments by an average of 18%, the data showed.

Users of the Augmented Cane also had fewer collisions with obstacles in their environment and reported higher confidence in their navigation abilities, the researchers said.

“Although our device is relatively low cost relative to other research devices, it definitely has room for improvement to become a product,” Slade said.

“We’ve open-sourced the design to help researchers and people interested in this problem to benefit from the design [and] we are thinking about streamlining future designs and would love to work with corporate partners to make a really useful product,” he said.

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