A Virtual Cane For The Visually Impaired

[Roman] has created an electronic cane for the visually impaired. Blind and visually impaired people have used canes and walking sticks for centuries. However, it wasn’t until the 1920’s and 1930’s that the white cane came to be synonymous with the blind. [Roman] is attempting to improve on the white cane design by bringing modern electronics to the table. With a mixture of hardware and clever software running on an Android smartphone, [Roman] has created a device that could help a blind person navigate.

The white cane has been replaced with a virtual cane, consisting of a 3D printed black cylinder. The cane is controlled by an ATmega328 running the Arduino bootloader and [Roman’s] code. Peeking out from the end of the handle is a Maxbotix ultrasonic distance sensor. Distance information is reported to the user via a piezo buzzer and a vibration motor. An induction coil allows for charging without fumbling for tiny connectors. A Bluetooth module connects the virtual cane to the other half of the system, an Android phone.

[Roman’s] Android app runs solely on voice prompts and speech syntheses. Navigation commands such as “Take me to <address>” use the phone’s GPS and Google Maps API to retrieve route information. [Roman’s] app then speaks the directions for the user to follow. Help can be summoned by simply stating “Send <contact name> my current location.” In the event that the user drops their virtual cane, “Find my device” will send a Bluetooth command to the cane. Once the command is received, the cane will reveal its position by beeping and vibrating.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Using technology to help disabled people is one of the best hacks we can think of. Hackaday alum [Caleb Kraft] has been doing just that with his work at The Controller Project. [Roman] is still actively improving his cane. He’s already won a gold medal at the Niagara Regional Science and Engineering Fair. He’s entered his project in several more science events, including the Canada Wide Science Fair and the Google Science Fair. Good luck [Roman]!

31 thoughts on “A Virtual Cane For The Visually Impaired

  1. I didn’t see anything in the article about it, but does it allow the user to feel textures on the floor? For instance, feeling short ledges in doorways, incline changes or intentionally textured areas used to warn people of hazzards like the bumps on the edge of transit platforms?

    1. Lots of improvements are coming in V2. The vibration intensity changes depending on the distance. So in theory a user would be able to identify things such as a door ledge. However at the moment there is no way of detecting the changes in surface texture.

      1. With regards to texture/material detection:

        One thing you could try could be to measure the relative attenuation/other acoustic properties of different frequencies of ultrasound.

        The other would be to use a laser to measure the small variations in distance, and couple that with an angular sensor and the ultrasonic distance to produce a Fourier transform of the surface, which you could compare against some presets or just feed the highest peaks into the vibration system.

        1. I don’t follow. How would you couple angular data and distance data to ‘produce a fourier transform of the surface.’ I think I understand the output you are looking for — heights versus distance from cane — but I don’t understand how that data gets produced. ‘Splain it to me!

          1. I mean use the angular velocity and distance to work out the speed at which the laser is moving over the surface, and then you can get an idea of how bumpy the surface is.

      2. I like the command: Dude, where is my cane??
        I jest but this could be a smaller version for the always dissapearing car keys.
        Also, maybe the returning ultrasound could be converted to audible range, making a kind of echolocation.
        Good work, Good luck!

  2. I think it’s too simplistic for this day and age.

    And on a sidenote: do blind people even have android phones? I mean touchscreens are next to impossible to use for a blind person and a physical keyboard is obviously something you’d prefer, and the rest of the expensive thing are also mostly useless and they must be better off with a 20 euro/bucks dumbphone I bet.

    1. No, they all use iPhones…

      Seriously though, I have no idea, but with voice commands and speech to text and text to speech, I don’t see why they wouldn’t. Granted the touch screen isn’t as useful when you cannot see it, but I’m sure there are android based phones that have keyboards.

      As for an earlier comment about texture, this might not be able to pick it out, so it might fail a bit there, but with better technology behind it I could see it being able to pick stuff up like that.

  3. I don’t really see the utility in this. I would imagine that a physical cane would be much more useful and intuitive to a blind person. You can feel things like cracks in the sidewalk, slight bumps in doorframes, or when you’re about to run into terrain like water or gravel. And that’s another thing, would this be able to account for a pothole filled with water?

    What is the user supposed to do when they forget to charge their cane and it dies in the middle of nowhere? I just don’t really see how this is any more useful than an actual cane, other than you don’t have to carry a long stick with you all the time.

    1. The iconic white cane also serves to let others know that you are visually impaired. The public hallways at my office are not really wide enough for three people to pass the same point at the same time. Collisions happen if the three people don’t condense and the middle person needs to fallback or turn their torso a little bit.

      A coworker with really bad vision carries his cane on days when there are a lot of people in the shared spaces so that everyone else knows to give him a little bit more space.

    2. In addition, many US States have laws requiring drivers to stop and wait for persons with guide dogs or White Canes who are about to cross the road (not just those who have already begun crossing). This gizmo’s ability to integrate with a phone is nifty, but I’d rather see it as an attachment for a conventional cane.

      1. That actually sounds like a neat project.

        Upgrade a conventional white cane to allow it to control and receive feedback from an android/iPhone/etc app. Sort of like a cane version of a pebble watch but with tactile output instead of a screen (and probably more buttons to compensate for the lack of a menu system).

  4. As others have mentioned above, it could be an issue if it runs out of batteries. Perhaps you could integrate some kind of telescoping mechanism that turns it into a physical cane?

  5. Why do you guys keep plugging TheControllerProject – it is dead, Caleb has posted nothing meaningful since October last year, apparently because he is “too busy”. Such lacklustre support is actually detrimental to a worthy cause.

    1. Might be better to keep the cane, and have this device pointing forward. I suppose the idea is the user can feel out the space in front of him using the sensors. That itself sounds like a useful idea. The GPS is a separate function, but if it fits in with the use of this gadget, why not?

      Ultrasonic rangefinders for blind people have been around for a while, often mounted on a headset of some kind, with earphones, tho of course that makes it harder to listen to what’s around you.

      There are labs that research this kind of thing, how to best allow blind people to image the space around them, using all sorts of methods beside touch. I dunno how closely knit the whole scene is, but with modern technology there must be a whole lot of new stuff for them to come up with.

    2. I was wondering the exact same thing Kevin. For example, if someone with a white cane with a red tip puts it in an intersection, by law here, all traffic has to come to a stop. It’s certainly a nifty device and could assist the visually impaired, but I don’t see it replacing the necessity of the tried and trued cane.

  6. Looks like a spin off of a friend of mine and my idea. Finished my working design one year ago and posted online. I wonder if he took from my page…has the exact same features. Except I kept the cane, because it is useful for the user. I also did not run on a smartphone, because smartphones are not user friendly to the visually impaired. I designed a complete standalone hardware. Also I have designed sonar system to buzz the handle in proportion to the distance of approaching objects. All of my design is publicly posted along with the code. But nice job with the spin off design :)

    “Mark Applegate holds a Sensewalk navigation device for assisting the blind. Directions and location updates are given through a cane mounted audio device.”

    1. Hey Mark,

      Sounds like you have a neat project, congrats. My innovation is not a spin off of your design.

      The reason I chose to use a smartphone is so that it can use the Google Maps API. Also, to reduce hardware costs.

      Please send a link of your project. Also, I would never use code or ideas without siteing/ giving credit to the source.

      My email is: email@romanakozak.com

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