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“Virtual Cane” Lets Visually Impaired Navigate Via Sonar

A new prototype device allows the visually impaired to more easily walk the streets using sonar-like technology to create an impromptu spatial picture.

virtual cane

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Blind and visually impaired individuals may soon be walking easier with “virtual canes.” A new device developed by a team affiliated with Israel’s Hebrew University allows users to detect all objects within 10 meters for safe navigation. The cane uses sonar-like technology, turning users into virtual batmen and batwomen.

Users first point the handheld unit, which emits an invisible focused beam, in the direction they are walking. Several sensors inside the device then extrapolate the distance and height of all objects near the user; that information is then relayed to the user by a series of intuitive vibrations to create an impromptu spatial picture. While in use, the cane modulates the strength and frequency of vibration as the user either approaches or moves away from an object.

The device’s learning curve for the visually impaired only requires several minutes. It was unveiled at the recent Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, which Fast Company previously reported on.

Each unit was also designed for relatively long battery life; they carry a 12-hour charge and can be easily recharged.

The device is the product of Yissum Research Development Company, which serves as Hebrew University’s technology transfer firm. According to Yissum’s Yaacov Michlin, “[This] promising invention can endow visually impaired people with the freedom to freely navigate in their surroundings without unintentionally bumping into or touching other people and thus has the potential to significantly enhance their quality of life.”

Yissum was responsible for creating the device’s prototype. The firm is reportedly in talks with partners for further strategic product development.

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In the meantime, the device is apparently working well enough for test users to successfully navigate through mazes in the dark. For everyday use, the “virtual cane” is designed to be complemented with other devices. Primary developer Amir Amedi is best known for his prior research into the neuroscience of reading.

[Image: Dr. Amir Amedi]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

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