Capstone Award winner’s Smart Cane boosts confidence and safety for the visually impaired
25, Aug, 2020
EDMONTON, Aug. 25, 2020 – A team from NAIT won the Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta (ASET) 2020 Capstone Project of the Year Award for building a better white cane for the visually impaired: the VISAIDE Smart Cane.
The traditional white cane is the most commonly used mobility device around the world, providing tactile feedback to the user to aid safe, efficient, and independent travel in familiar and unfamiliar environments. It also serves as a global identifier of people with visual impairments. However, since its invention almost a century ago, it’s undergone surprisingly little improvement. That is, until the Capstone Award-winning team took a contemporary approach to it.
The VISAIDE Smart Cane, invented by former NAIT biomedical engineering technology students Nathaniel Painchaud, Dan Oake and Navneet Kaler, boasts the bells and whistles only smart technology can offer.
Remote smartphone accessibility
A multimode button interface on the cane handle communicates via Bluetooth to operate iPhones through a back-end accessibility feature called switch control. By pressing buttons on the handle, the user can activate customised, preprogrammed smart device functions, such as turn-by-turn GPS walking directions, emergency location services, and messaging to and from family members and caregivers.
For example, some of the preprogrammed functions are designed to contact family members and caregivers in emergencies and provide access to current locations. The Smart Cane signals the iPhone to execute pre-generated messages or to open the messaging app so that the user can dictate a text if the message isn’t preprogrammed. VoiceOver, a gesture-based screen reader that enables iPhone operation if the screen can’t be seen, is used to read all incoming messages.
Advanced obstacle and surface water detection
The Smart Cane incorporates Lidar technology, which gauges distances by illuminating the target with laser light and measuring the reflection with a sensor. The cane is outfitted with a Lidar optical distance measurement sensor and liquid level detector to collect information about the user’s surroundings, and relay signals to the user through a haptic (vibration) feedback system. The vibrations alert the user to the presence and proximity of obstacles and/or surface water, giving her or him extra time to prepare to avoid them, and enabling navigation of unfamiliar environments with increased speed and confidence.
Handled with care
Due to the white cane’s universal status as an assistive device and symbol of independence, the NAIT team strived to package the smart technology features into its familiar form. An ergonomic handle was CAD modeled and 3D printed to house all the required electronics and allow retrofitting to any standard white cane. Given cosmetic similarities between white canes and the Smart Cane, users would not face a significant challenge in transitioning to the latter.
“Our team at NAIT decided that we wanted to work on something assistive technology based as we all found the idea of creating a device that had the potential to help people overcome challenges in their everyday lives to be very motivating and inspiring,” said Painchaud.
“The VISAIDE Smart Cane, a visionary idea whose time has come, is an outstanding example of the high calibre of innovation and commitment to the public good we see embodied in the Capstone projects prepared by engineering technology students across the province,” said ASET CEO Barry Cavanaugh.
The percentage of the world’s population with visual impairments is increasing rapidly. As of 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 2.2 billion people have a vision impairment or blindness.
In addition to handing out the Capstone Project of the Year Award to deserving engineering technology students, the ASET Education and Scholarship Foundation provides scholarships, bursaries and educational funding to enhance and support the education of students pursuing engineering technology studies.
ASET is the professional self-regulatory organization for engineering technologists and technicians in Alberta. ASET currently represents over 16,000 members, including full-time technology students, recent graduates and fully certified members in 21 disciplines and more than 120 occupations across a multitude of industries.
Michele Penz, Calico Communications for ASET