This device alerts users to objects around them for more independence
A team out of Recife in northern Brazil has developed a new device aimed at granting the blind greater freedom to walk the streets on their own. AnnuitWalk’s latest prototype is a pair of glasses that use ultrasonic waves to discover obstacles around them.
The company began their research back in the beginning of 2014, developing their first device nearly a year later at the start of 2015. The project was co-founded by Emily Schuler who is the head of research, CEO Marcos Penha, and Jalingson Assis who serves as their CTO.
Schuler and Penha spoke with Geektime at the annual SLUSH startup convention that was held in Helsinki last week.
Understanding the needs of the community
The AnnuitWalk crew knew from the start that they wanted to work on a product that would benefit the blind citizens of their country. The team initiated their research at the Associacao Pernambucana de Cegos (APEC) to find out which issues were most pressing for the visually impaired in their community. Schuler explains that it was important for them to hear from their audience during the concept building stage, and not simply bring a product to them when it was completed.
What they discovered was that even with a cane, getting out in the world was a daily challenge. The participants in their survey said that while the cane was helpful for alerting them to objects at the ground level, they were left unprotected from dangers that were higher up.
“One man we spoke to told us how he kept getting hurt when walking down his street by a truck that would park too close to the sidewalk,” Schuler tells Geektime. “While the wheels were still in the street, the body of the truck would hang in the air over onto the sidewalk. The man’s cane was of no use to him.”
During the course of their survey, the team understood that the blind were not looking for a replacement for their otherwise trusty canes, but wanted a complimentary device that would fill in the gap for upper body protection.
Designing the prototype
Unsurprisingly, one of the points that the trio heard constantly was the need to make the device look good, and not make them stand out from the crowd unnecessarily. AnnuitWalk decided to put their technology in a pair of sunglasses, which would hardly seem out of place to most.
From the outside, the glasses look like a standard set, with the exception of what appears to be two small sensors that protrude from the left.
However, it’s on the flip side of the blacked out glasses where the magic happens with the computer chips that send out and process the ultrasonic waves tacked onto the frames.
The glasses are a bit front heavy when the wearer puts them on, but Penha reiterates that they are still working on reaching a finished product.
Their technology uses echolocation like bats or a submarine to tell the user if there are obstacles ahead. If an object is detected, then the wearer is sent a vibrating alert either through the glasses or to a wrist band.
The cost factor appears to be playing a significant role in how the team approached this project, noting that it would have to be affordable if it was going to have a real impact on those living in Brazil. “The average salary in our country is 700 reais a month, and most of the blind fall way under this line,” explain Schuler and Penha. They understand that they need to keep their price point around or below the 80-100 reais that it costs to buy an average cane.
By comparison, other options for the blind can be considerably more expensive. The UltraCane is a British-made device that also uses echolocation for a wider range of detection. While it looks to be an excellent product, it needs to be imported and costs considerably more, with a price tag of close to 4,000 reais. A guide dog Schuler says can be ten times more expensive, costing 40,000 reais.
Plans for the future
All of the work on the project has been done thus far in Brazil. In the long term, the company is hoping to scale up to global sales but in the meantime, they are focused on making it available as soon as July for people in Brazil.
They are currently investigating options for manufacturing the glasses, and are working to ensure that the product is safe and comfortable to use. Schuler adds that they plan on making the wristbands more like fashion accessories, giving the users a chance to express themselves.
After handling the glasses, it feels like AnnuitWalk is on the right track but still has some work to do in ironing out their design for comfort and weight.
This product has the potential to bring the freedom of mobility to the blind community, removing some of the barriers to social inclusion. The team appears to have a clear vision of how they need to fit into the market, as well as which areas they need to improve. With any luck, we’ll see great things from AnnuitWalk this summer.