Time to add technology to white canes

But with the exception of bullock carts, the only thing that has not changed in the last eight decades is the white cane used by several persons with vision challenge. In 1931, Guilly d’Herbemont launched a white cane movement in France and about the same time, George A Bonham of Lions Clubs International, introduced white canes in the US. Since then, the shape and utility of white canes have remained largely unchanged.

Use of long canes by the blind to survey the environment for obstacles could possibly date back several centuries, but the idea of painting it white with a striking scarlet at the centre was an innovation that happened during the 1930s. Combined with the red, the white cane is easy to spot for motorists from a distance so that they can slow down and give the right-of-way for the visually challenged person carrying it.

Ever since, traffic in several major cities have grown exponentially, not to mention the horse power of the engines. In the last few years, footpaths are disappearing in several major roads, making thoroughfares unsafe for pedestrians not just the vision impaired.
What’s more, the next generation four-wheelers currently tested in Japan and in the United States are electronic varieties that hardly make a noise even as they zip at 100km/hr. Already organisations working for the blind are raising fears about the danger they pose to white cane users.

All these are reasons enough for white canes to become intelligent. So far, making ICanes (Intelligent Canes) or ECanes (Electronic Canes) — as people called them — has been more an intrigue for college students that did not last beyond their course duration.
Ironically, the way the blind use electronic and IT based technology in other aspects of their lives has changed significantly in the last decade, spawning a new category of devices and systems called access technology. This encompasses things like screen readers used in PCs, laptops and mobile phones, Optical Character Readers (OCRs) satellite-based navigation aids and even smaller but handy devices for audio labelling and colour identification.

Certainly, technologies such as GPS, sensors and other kinds of networks are capable of transforming a ‘dumb’ white cane into an intelligent one which can provide a comprehensive picture of the environment.

The technological ingredients to develop ICanes may have matured only recently, but the most important reason for the failure — across the globe — in developing them is lack of innovation and poor understanding of the user’s requirements.

The innate complexities in developing an ICane presents an exciting challenge for scientists and researchers with an innovative bent of mind. Unfortunately, ICane has failed to inspire them so far. There are three possible problems the ICane can solve.

The first challenge is feeling the surface. When the cane hits the ground the vibration often conveys the hardness or softness of the terrain a visually challenged person is treading. This can be done by a sensor which can constantly convey the potential obstacles such as hardness/softness, smoothness or unevenness through vibration.

The second and third challenges — namely identifying under-the-ground/over-the-ground and suspended-from-the-ground obstacles — can be solved through GPS’ ability to locate objects and assist navigation. This should be able to help the cane understand a hanging tree branch above the head-level of a visually challenged person and should also help him locate a large stone in the pathway or pits below the ground.

Working out voice/vibration based interfaces with these technologies should be possible for those with appropriate engineering and research experience. Though cost and production may be an issue, these can  surely be overcome if companies put their minds to it.

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