We love a good collaborative project as much as we love a good bit of biomimicry. That makes us happy to report that biology and computer science students and professors at Wake Forest University have teamed up to develop a device to assist the visually impaired. Following the principles of echolocation used by bats and moths, the interdisciplinary team has developed a watch-like unit that allows the wearer to navigate their environment using sonar. To make the project even more remarkable, all the parts and materials for the prototype cost less than $60.
The project began when biology professor William Conner was chatting to associate professor of computer science Paul Pauca. Conner teaches a class called “Bio-inspiration and Biomimetics,” examining how animals and plants can inspire the design of new technologies. The professors decided to gather an interdisciplinary team of students to figure out how to put Conner’s interests in echolocation into action. Says Conner, “The sonar device for assisting the visually impaired is a perfect example of how my class works. We were inspired by bat sonar, we learned about it, and then we used it to develop a new product. The students took the idea and made it happen.”
The students involved were Jack Janes, a senior computer science major; Dominic Prado, a senior biology major; and Ran Chang, a sophomore computer science major. After finding a ready-made sonar distance sensor online, they wondered if they could use it to help the visually impaired navigate their environment more easily. They settled on a wearable, watch-sized model because it was small. The device is also designed to be used in conjunction with existing aids such as a guide dog or a cane.
So how does it work? The team describe it succinctly: “The prototype is made up of several components. It is powered by an Arduino Lilypad microprocessor, runs JAVA-like code written by Janes, and is combined with the sonar distance sensors and two cellphone vibrating motors. It measures the distance of objects and provides feedback via vibrations to the user. The frequency of vibrations is proportional to the distance from the detected object, allowing the user to accurately discern an obstacle’s proximity; they get faster as it draws near.”
The team enlisted the help of blind sophomore Kathryn Webster to test the device. Webster currently navigates around campus with her guide dog, but she finds it difficult assessing whether classroom doors are opened or closed. Webster tested the device without using the assistance of her dog and found it responsive: it vibrated as she approached a closed door and stopped when it was opened. The team are now working on making the device even smaller and more energy efficient. They hope to have it running off a watch battery and possibly to be solar powered. They also want to keep the cost of the unit low, as the parts and materials currently cost less than $60.
Photos by Wake Forest University