Researchers develop a smart cane to aid those with visual impairments

08-10-2021 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

Being blind is a challenging disability when considering that almost all daily activities use sight in one form or another. Researchers have recently developed a prototype of an intelligent cane that could help blind users navigate the world with more ease.

What challenges does blindness present when navigating the world?

Being blind in a world entirely dependent on sight presents significant challenges that most of us can’t even begin to comprehend. Whether taking the bins out or getting groceries, sight plays a critical role in everyday life. Not having the ability to see is arguably the worse sensory deficit to have.

Those who are blind will often be required to learn a whole range of coping strategies and skills to better navigate the world around them. For example, guide dogs can help with navigating dangerous terrain such as city centres, brail can enable reading of books and computers, and the use of loud clicks can even be used for echolocation.

However, one of the most essential tools available to someone who is blind is the “white cane”, which is a long stick with a large curved-like ball on the end. This cane is used to help find obstacles, determine the texture of the ground, and identify low overhangs.

Researchers develop smart cane that could help revolutionize those who are blind

The white cane has been a vital tool for those who are blind for the better part of a hundred years, but one would think that the many advances in technology would have seen improvements in white canes. It turns out that white canes have made virtually no improvements since their conception, which could put users behind in accessibility technologies.

However, the National Eye Institute researchers have recently developed a white cane that integrates modern smart technologies to provide an advanced navigational tool. Blind users today can utilize map technologies based on GPS to help guide them in areas they are not used to, but even these services are far from accurate, and they can often fail to assist with navigation indoors.

Therefore, the researchers combined 3D colour cameras with inertial measurement units to create a smart cane that can improve indoor navigation. The camera, an Intel RealSense D435, is used to create a 3D map of the surrounding area, including obstacles, while the inertial measurement unit helps track motion, including turns and orientation.

The sensory information is then combined with architectural drawings of a building that can help provide better navigation. Furthermore, the use of Bluetooth provides the user with in-ear audio on their surroundings and directions on travel.

Currently, the cane is only a prototype, and its considerable weight makes it impractical for many users. However, the researchers hope that the cane can be reduced in weight, improved in capability, and be available to those who need it most with more funding and further development.

Will smart technologies become more important for those with disabilities?

There is no doubt that modern technology can play a key role in making the lives of those with disabilities easier. For example, the Amazon Echo that utilizes speech recognition could be installed in the homes of those who are blind for help with contacting relatives and ordering groceries. Smartphones can also be another solution to many problems that face challenges, whether automatic fall detection or the ability to read text seen by the inbuilt camera.

However, most technological development is driven by capitalism, and it is rare to find engineers who will devote their lives to helping others with no economic incentive. This is not the fault of capitalism or engineers themselves, but simply due to everyone needing to earn a living. As the number of those who are blind is relatively small compared to the rest of the population, it is challenging to produce advanced technologies that can help while providing a return on investment.

Technology will help those with disabilities, and as technology progresses, so will the ability to help those in need. Overall, the development of a smart cane could prove invaluable for future generations of blind individuals as they navigate a dangerous and unforgiving world.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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