While technology helps the visually impaired better access the digital world (making it easy for them to quickly dictate emails or speak instructions into smartphones, for instance), trying to get around in the real world can be somewhat more challenging. Many of the more than 6 million blind people in America rely on a trusty guide dog or a white cane to sense what is in front of them. Ustraap, a startup founded by three Mexican entrepreneurs, is hoping to improve the tools blind people can use to understand their surroundings.
Ustraap has created a bracelet that identifies obstructions, allowing a visually impaired person to point it in any direction and receive either a vibration or a buzz when an object is in their way. The bracelet can also identify exactly how dense that obstruction is: Oncoming bushes might result in a softer buzz than a wall or a lamppost. While a dog or a cane can only identify what is directly in front of its owner, the Ustraap can sense obstructions that are above ground level or even behind the wearer. In other words, the device offers the blind a 360-degree sensory experience that is a little more like what a sighted person might be able to access.
Last month, Ustraap won the $50,000 Gold Prize at MassChallenge, a startup accelerator program in Boston, and received a $25,000 technology award from Perkins, the leading organization supporting the visually impaired around the world. Perkins experts are also serving as mentors to the Ustraap team and offering their knowledge about the needs of the visually impaired community. The Ustraap bracelet is currently available to pre-order for $349 and is set to ship next April.
“The people in our accessibility group, who are themselves visually impaired, absolutely loved this device,” says Dave Power, CEO of Perkins. “It’s very compact and beautifully designed.” He points out that many products designed for the visually impaired are highly functional, but not particularly aesthetically pleasing. Power says that contrary to popular belief, the blind do care about their appearance and want to fit in, so they appreciate a sleek, stylish-looking device.
If this device is useful to the visually impaired in America, it could be potentially life-saving for people in developing countries. Marco Trujillo, cofounder of Ustraap, says that his native Mexico is not an accommodating place for the blind. “The majority of people with visual impairments stay at home since navigating the city is very dangerous for them,” he says. “Guide dogs are not allowed to enter many places, infrastructure is not designed for cane users in most parts of the city, and since there is little interaction between visually impaired and sighted people, there is a lack of sensitivity and understanding.”
Power says that the Ustraap bracelet is part of a wider wave of technological innovation improving the lives of the blind. Scientists are working to digitize Braille through haptic technology that would allow the blind to feel maps and text that change in real time. Driverless cars and household robots could also be game-changers for the visually impaired. “Facial recognition technology could help the blind immediately sense who is around the table at a business meeting,” Power says.
“The possibilities for equipping the visually impaired with technology are literally endless.”