Wearable Tech: Tactile Navigation for the Visually Impaired
By Supriti Malhotra

Haptic technology is revolutionising tech with its ‘hands-on’ approach shifting the paradigms of wearable tech. Providing an interactive experience based on digital touch, haptic technology is proving to be a boon driving development of specialised devices for the visually impaired, opening up a world of possibilities for their sensory world. The latest innovations include navigation systems for the visually impaired, from haptic wristbands to tactile traffic maps.

Sunu, based in based in Boston and Guadaljara, Mexico, have created the Sunu Band, a smartwatch that ‘combines sonar technology with precision haptic feedback to augment spatial awareness and navigation.’ Tactile navigation is achieved by its ‘ultrasonic proximity sensor which detects obstacles by sending high-frequency ultrasonic waves upto 13 feet,

with haptic feedback being sent at 30 frames per second, with an intensity that varies depending on obstacle distance. Its rechargeable LiPo battery lasts for 12 hours, and the radar sensitivity as well as vibrations’ intensity are customisable.  Available at a cost of $249.99, the sonar-equipped Sunu Band functions without the need of a smartphone, although the option of controlling the smartwatch via a Bluetooth enabled app is available. One of its developers, Fernando Albertorio who is visually impaired, has navigated through crowded Boston streets, and even participated successfully in Boston Athletic Association’s 5K race, with Sunu Band as his guide. Albertorio describes the 5K experience as, ‘It was amazing. It was just that feeling of independence when you’re running.’ The Sunu Band is endorsed by the National Federation of the Blind, United States as ‘an innovative piece of access technology with great potential,’ and is also the winner of the 2014 MassChallenge Gold Award and the Perkins Assistive Technology Prize.


Though not yet commercially available, various wearable navigation systems are being developed. Emilios Farrington-Arnas, an industrial designer from Brunel University, has created Maptic, ‘a system of wearable sensory devices for the visually impaired, consisting of a visual sensor and vibrating feedback units.’ ‘Being told that you have a lifelong, incurable eyesight problem is a terrifying prospect, one that is very difficult to come to terms with, says Farrington-Arnas, ‘How the user interprets the objects in front of them into touch was the most important part of the project. There was a lot of research and prototyping involved to design intuitive vibrations.’ The visual sensor that can be worn as a necklace connects via Bluetooth to a voice-controlled smartphone app enabled with GPS, recognises head height, resulting in tracking capabilities for responding to obstacles at chest level and higher. Dual feedback units (for the left and right sides of the body) can be worn as wristbands or clipped onto clothing, and send a series of haptic vibrations, similar to sonar. WearWorks, backed by Urban-X in Brooklyn, New York, is developing WAYBAND, ‘a wearable haptic navigation device’. Expected to be commercially available by 2018, WAYBAND connects via an app, with the user feeding in the destination into the app, resulting in tactile feedback providing navigation guidance.


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is generally at the forefront of technology advancements, has researchers from its Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) developing a wearable device for the visually impaired. Robert Katzschmann, graduate student in MIT’s mechanical engineering course, and co-author of the paper presented at International Conference on Robotics and Automation, says, “In a nutshell, our system scans the world and finds the walkable space and obstacles in front of the user with visual impairment. The user does not need to explore the space by contacting each part with a white cane. What makes the system especially exciting is that it can detect obstacles of use, such as chairs and tables. The device consists of a 3D camera, supported by smart image recognition algorithms that identify surfaces and their orientations, as well as a belt with pulsing haptic vibrations, and an electronically reconfigurable Braille interface. The smart image recognition, capable of object recognition, provides information about the obstacles, including whether a chair is vacant. The belt motors are customisable for frequency, intensity, duration and pulse intervals; and the electronic Braille pads display characters indentifying objects, for example, ‘a “t” for “table” or “c” for “chair’.

Even as wearable devices provide personalised navigation for the visually impaired, cities around the world are experimenting with tactile public navigation systems, with the help of organistions such as Wayfindr which uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Beacons to provide indoor navigation systems, and Touch Graphics creating tactile maps with diagrams comprising three-dimensional features and braille text for New York’s Department of Transportation. As haptic technology proves itself as the leading assistive technology, navigation challenges for the visually impaired is increasingly a thing of the past.













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