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This in-shoe vibrator can help blind pedestrians navigate hands-free

The device can indicate which way a user should walk without interfering with hearing or tying up their hands.

This in-shoe vibrator can help blind pedestrians navigate hands-free
[Photo: courtesy of Ashirase]
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While there are plenty of apps that enable people to navigate city streets, most of them require users to look at or listen to a handheld device. That’s often not a great solution for people with limited or no vision who want to use their ears to keep track of what’s going on around them and are often already using their hands to carry canes.

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That’s why engineer Wataru Chino is starting Ashirase to build in-shoe devices that vibrate to help users who are blind navigate places they don’t know in a hands-free way.

Ashirase’s devices can be inserted into standard sneakers and many dress shoes and connected to a linked smartphone app to provide turn-by-turn directions after a destination is typed or spoken. But instead of signaling where to turn visually or even aurally, which blind and visually impaired people can find distracting or simply difficult to hear, the slim devices can vibrate at the left, right, or front of the shoe to indicate to users which way to travel. At corners where someone needs to turn, the devices first vibrate more broadly, signaling a stop, Chino explains.

[Photo: courtesy of Ashirase]
The idea came about after Chino’s wife’s grandmother, who was visually impaired, slipped and fell to her death while walking near a river, he said through an interpreter in a Tuesday press conference. The tragedy motivated him to think about ways to help people with visual impairments walk safely without assistance from another person.

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Ashirase, announced last month, is the first company to launch through Honda’s Ignition program, which helps company employees commercialize their ideas. Chino previously worked for Honda doing R&D for electric vehicle motor control and automated driving. His new company’s name comes from the Japanese words for foot and notification.

[Photo: courtesy of Ashirase]
Navigating some urban areas has become particularly challenging for people with visual disabilities during coronavirus shutdowns, Chino explains. That’s because characteristic traffic patterns, sounds, and smells have all shifted with businesses shut down, and family members and paid aides have been less available to help people get to their destinations.

The devices—which Ashirase aims to launch in a limited beta this fall with the goal of a broader launch next year—aren’t designed to completely replace other mobility aids. One advantage of having the devices located in the user’s shoe is that they don’t interfere with other equipment, like the white-tipped canes many visually impaired people use to find their way. The devices will likely be able to guide them around some obstructions, like road closures, using map data or potentially crowdsourced information from other users. But users will still need to use their senses to determine whether there are other things blocking a sidewalk and when it’s safe to use a crosswalk.

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Wataru Chino [Photo: courtesy of Ashirase]
Chino envisions the devices will be available through a monthly subscription for roughly 2,000 to 3,000 yen, which is about $18 to $28 at current exchange rates. While he’s based in Japan, the company anticipates the technology will ultimately be available elsewhere, including in the United States and European Union.

At present, the devices are also designed for outdoor walking based on navigation using GPS or similar systems, but future models or updates might incorporate navigational information and other signals such as Wi-Fi to help people find their way around indoor facilities like shopping malls. They may also be able to work with transit data to help users navigate trips that include both walking components and public transportation, Chino says.

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Another potential evolution of the product, which currently is designed to last about three hours per day after a weekly charge, is more style-oriented: making it compatible with a wider range of shoes.

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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