The standard white cane has remained unchanged for nearly 100 years, but a new "smart cane" for the blind is changing the way people access the world around them. A company called WeWALK has made it their mission to completely revolutionize the traditional device's functionality, including adding ultrasonic sensors and GPS navigation.
Why the Long Cane No Longer Cuts It
Today, there are an estimated 10 million Americans who are either blind or visually impaired and 250 million people worldwide, many of whom use canes.
For blind and visually impaired individuals, independence and mobility pose a nearly insurmountable challenge. Navigating through unexpected obstacles (everything from cracks in a sidewalk to vehicles on the street) can easily threaten a person's safety when they go undetected.
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Until recently, the options for accessibility to independent mobility have been limited to the standard, white walking cane for the blind or the assistance of a seeing eye dog. The commonly used white cane provides a person with limited information about their surroundings and designates them as visually impaired so others can respond accordingly.
But since its initial appearance in the 1930s, the long cane's design hasn't undergone many innovations. These canes for the blind can detect objects immediately in front of them, but they cannot detect objects on all sides, such as low-hanging branches, nor can they help a person navigate a city. As Jean Marc Feghali at WeWalk puts it, "This simply doesn't cut it anymore."
Developing a Smart Cane for the Blind
The social technology hub known as YGA (Young Guru Academy), is an international non-profit that has been developing assistive technologies for over 10 years. YGA uses the innovative ideas of volunteer researchers to apply the latest technologies in ways that will help communities in need.
WeWALK was developed with these tenants in mind. Their smart cane for the blind uses the latest technologies to create an interactive experience that vastly improves upon the original white cane.
Unlike standard canes, WeWALK can detect obstacles above the waist (like low-hanging branches) using an ultrasonic sensor.
Although WeWALK has greatly improved upon the functionality of the long cane, it didn't necessitate much change to its physical design, making it incredibly easy for anyone to start incorporating a smart cane into their daily routine.
To set up WeWALK's smart cane for the blind, users simply untie the handle from their original white cane and attach a universal adapter. The device easily attaches in place of the cane's original handle, instantly upgrading to the power of the latest integrative technology.
How It Works
WeWALK's smart cane uses an ultrasonic sensor to detect obstacles above the waist, and it alerts the user via in-hand vibration when these obstacles are nearby. While the classic long cane could only be used to sense low obstacles, this smart cane enables people to walk freely and securely, aware of things like overhead poles and street signs.
The smart cane provides users with directions to the nearest bus stop or coffee shop via Google Maps.
They can also customize the cane's functionality, using the app to designate the distance at which they're notified of detected obstacles. In addition to its greater range of obstacle detection, the smart cane pairs with a user's smartphone and a variety of software.
It allows users to access navigation through Google Maps and Voice Assistant, so they can ask for directions and be guided to the nearest bus stop or coffee shop, for example. An intelligent design means the user can access these tools directly from the cane's touchpad, eliminating the need for a phone in one hand and a cane in the other.
Leveling the Playing Field
WeWALK's current abilities are already impressive. The single device has the power to help millions of people independently navigate the world, without a sighted guide or a seeing eye dog.
The dream for WeWALK is that it will allow blind and visually impaired individuals to explore unfamiliar neighborhoods, cities, or countries without fearing for their safety. In the future of smart canes, anyone can have the freedom to travel, regardless of sight.
And as more and more people use their smart canes, the company's developers are able to continue learning and improving the technology. In Istanbul, WeWALK has already experienced a successful, full integration with the city's public transportation layout and timetables.
The goal is to allow anyone the freedom to travel to unfamiliar neighborhoods, cities, or countries, regardless of sight.
In the future, WeWALK hopes to maximize accessibility for users. They will be fully integrated with smart cities, public transportation, and ride sharing apps. These new integrations will appear during periodic software updates.
In addition to future updates to WeWALK's smart cane for the blind, the company operates using an open platform, meaning data is available to help others better understand the needs of the blind and visually impaired community.
As a result, WeWALK hopes their technology will lead to the development of more applications designed to improve accessibility for this community. Access to this data can even help cities improve the way they design infrastructure to better accommodate a more diverse group of individuals with different accessibility needs.
"There is a big psychological part in this," says Feghali. "The psychological part starts with a bad experience or lack of mobility. It ultimately leads to disadvantages in society as a whole and a more segregated society, which is why we at WeWALK have actually focused our efforts into bringing the visually impaired into the 21st century, giving everyone an equal playing field."