Monday, February 22, 2016

The Handisco smart cane: The "white cane" gets an update

For decades, people who are blind or have visual impairments have used the "white cane" to help them navigate the world.  A long and lightweight tool, it is swept back in forth in front of an individual's feet to help them detect any obstacles on the path ahead.  Now, a group of graduate engineering students are hoping to increase the cane's capabilities with some high-tech modifications.

The students have created a box that fits on a traditional white cane, but instead of using the customary tactile method of locating obstacles, the box uses infrared and ultrasonic wave sensors to detect objects.  If a user is near an obstacle, the device will vibrate the cane to let them know.  It's the same kind of principal used in cars to alert a driver that something is near the back bumper.  With this technology, users can gain awareness of a wider area of space around them than simply sweeping the cane back and forth would provide.

And the capabilities of the cane attachment don't stop there.  It also has GPS integration, and can convey verbal information like directions to a user via a bluetooth headset.  In the future, it may be able to provide even more in-depth guidance as well.  Though the practice is not widespread yet, certain cities have started to implement types of "tagging systems," which make real-time data from a city available in an open system.  The cane attachment can collect that data and relay it to the user, including details such as whether a nearby traffic light is red or green, and what a cross-walk signal reads.  Shops can install their own customized tagging systems (or "beacons") too, broadcasting information such as what the shop sells, what its hours are, and where the entrance is located.  The students are testing their cane attachment using data from the city of Nancy, France.

The idea for the updated white cane came to students at the University of Lorraine in Nancy, France, after they were informed of a challenge called Le Défi Cisco.  The challenge asked students to apply technology to social and environmental issues—and offered a €70,000 prize for the winners.  A student named Lucie d’Alguerre thought that her uncle, who is blind, could be helped by a device that gave the traditional white cane more capabilities.  Lucie began building partner relationships with the city of Nancy and with an association for the blind called Valentin Haüy, and a professor helped her team up with four other students who helped make the idea into a reality.  Jonathan Donnard managed the team's communications with Cisco (the challenge's sponsor), Nicolas Frizzarin handled the business plan and financial issues, and Florian Esteves and Mathieu Chevalier became the technology's developers.

These students made up a team they called Handisco, and they were one of only six teams out of thirty to advance to the challenge's final round of judging.  In the final round, they won the top honor.

With the prize money they officially founded the Handisco company, and began pitching it to investors.  In June 2014, they received a National Prize for Innovation called the Pepite Award from the French Ministry of Education, and met with French president François Hollande.

Handisco is still working with the city of Nancy to pursue more funding, and they're working with blind people to get feedback and improve the device.  They are also exploring possibilities like connecting vibrating shoes to the cane in order to help provide additional feedback to users.

You can learn more about Handisco and their updated white cane on Handisco's website, from PBS, from the Huffington Post, and from Cisco.

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