Get Your Tweets Without Looking

Head-mounted displays range from cumbersome to glass-hole-ish. Smart watches have their niche, but they still take your eyes away from whatever you are doing, like driving. Voice assistants can read to you, but they require a speaker that everyone else in the car has to listen to, or a headset that blocks out important sound. Ignoring incoming messages is out of the question so the answer may be to use a different sense than vision. A joint project between Facebook Inc. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have a solution which uses the somatosensory reception of your forearm.

A similar idea came across our desk years ago and seemed promising, but it is hard to sell something that is more difficult than the current technique, even if it is advantageous in the long run. In 2013, a wearer had his or her back covered in vibrator motors, and it acted like the haptic version of a spectrum analyzer. Now, the vibrators have been reduced in number to fit under a sleeve by utilizing patterns. It is being developed for people with hearing or vision impairment but what drivers aren’t impaired while looking at their phones?

Patterns are what really set this version apart. Rather than relaying a discrete note on a finger, or a range of values across the back, the 39 English phenomes are given a unique sequence of vibrations which is enough to encode any word. A phenome phoneme is the smallest distinct unit of speech. The video below shows how those phonemes are translated to haptic feedback. Hopefully, we can send tweets without using our hands or mouths to upgrade to complete telepathy.

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Braille on a Tablet Computer

Signing up for college classes can be intimidating, from tuition, textbook requirements, to finding an engaging professor. Imagine signing up online, but you cannot use your monitor. We wager that roughly ninety-nine percent of the hackers reading this article have it displayed on a tablet, phone, or computer monitor. Conversely, “Only one percent of published books is available in Braille,” according to [Kristina Tsvetanova] who has created a hybrid tablet computer with a Braille display next to a touch-screen tablet running Android. The tablet accepts voice commands for launching apps, a feature baked right into Android. The idea came to her after helping a blind classmate sign up for classes.

Details on the mechanism are not clear, but they are calling it smart liquid, so it may be safe to assume hydraulic valves control the raised dots, which they call “tixels”. A rendering of the tablet can be seen below the break. The ability to create a full page of braille cells suggest they have made the technology pretty compact. We have seen Braille written on PCBs, a refreshable display based on vibrator motors, and a nicely sized Braille keyboard that can fit on the back of a mobile phone.

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The ‘All-Seeing Pi’ Aids Low-Vision Adventurer

Adventure travel can be pretty grueling, what with the exotic locations and potential for disaster that the typical tourist destinations don’t offer. One might find oneself dangling over a cliff for that near-death-experience selfie or ziplining through a rainforest canopy. All this is significantly complicated by being blind, of course, so a tool like this Raspberry Pi low-vision system would be a welcome addition to the nearly-blind adventurer’s well-worn rucksack.

[Dan] has had vision problems since childhood, but one look at his YouTube channel shows that he doesn’t let that slow him down. When [Dan] met [Ben] in Scotland, [Ben] noticed that he was using his smartphone as a vision aid, looking at the display up close and zooming in to get as much detail as possible from his remaining vision. [Ben] thought he could help, so he whipped up a heads-up display from a Raspberry Pi and a Pi Camera. Mounted to a 3D-printed frame holding a 5″ HDMI display and worn from a GoPro head mount, the camera provides enough detail to help [Dan] navigate, as seen in the video below.

The rig is a bit unwieldy right now, but as proof of concept (and proof of friendship), it’s a solid start. We think a slimmer profile design might help, in which case [Ben] might want to look into this Google Glass-like display for a multimeter for inspiration on version 2.0.

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Stairwell Lights Keep Toddler with Night-Blindness Safe

A devastating diagnosis for a young child is every parent’s worst nightmare. All too often there’s nothing that can be done, but occasionally there’s a window of opportunity to make things better for the child, even if we can’t offer a cure. In that case even a simple hack, like a rapid response stairwell light to help deal with night-blindness, can make a real difference.

[Becca] isn’t yet a year old, but she and her parents carry a heavy burden. She was born with Usher Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disease that affects hearing and vision to different degrees. In [Becca]’s case, she was born profoundly deaf and will likely lose her sight by the time she’s 10 or so. Her dad [Jake] realized that the soon-to-be-toddler was at risk due to a dark stairwell and the night-blindness that accompanies Usher, so he came up with a simple tech solution to the problem.

He chose Philips Hue LED light strips to run up the stringer of the stairs controlled by a Raspberry Pi. Originally he planned to use IFTTT for the job but the latency resulted in the light not switching on fast enough. He ended up using a simple PIR motion sensor which the Pi monitors and then uses the Hue API to control the light. This will no doubt give him a platform for future capabilities to help [Becca].

We’ve covered a few builds where parents have hacked solutions for their kids, like this custom media center for the builder’s autistic son. We suspect [Jake] has a few more tricks up his sleeve to help [Becca], and we’re looking forward to seeing how she does.

The Music of a Sunset

What would you do if you suddenly went blind and could never again see the sun set? How would you again experience this often breathtaking phenomenon? One answer is music, orchestrated by the sun and the Weather Warlock.

Built by the musician [Quintron] (builder and inventor of insane electronic instruments), the Weather Warlock is an analog synthesizer controlled by — you guessed it — the weather. It translates temperature, moisture, wind and sunlight into tones and harmonics with an E major root chord. UV, light, moisture, and temperature sensors combined with an anemometer set up outside feed the weather data to a synthesizer that has [Quintron] dialing knobs and toggling switches. The Weather Warlock steams 24/7 to the website weatherfortheblind.org so that the visually impaired are able to tune in and experience the joy of sunrise and sunset through music. Continue reading “The Music of a Sunset”

The Politest Patent Discussion, OSHW v. Patents

We’ve covered [Vijay] refreshable braille display before. Reader, [zakqwy] pointed us to an interesting event that occured in the discussion of its Hackaday.io project page.

[Vijay] was inspired by the work of [Paul D’souza], who he met at Makerfaire Bangalore. [Paul] came up with a way to make a refreshable braille display using small pager motors. [Vijay] saw the light, and also felt that he could make the vibrating motor display in such a way that anyone could make it for themselves at a low cost.

Of course, [Paul], had patented his work, and in this case rightly so. As jaded as we have become with insane patent trolls, our expectation on receiving the tip was that [Paul] had sued [Vijay] out of house and home and kicked his dog while he was at it. A short google search shows that [Paul] is no patent troll, and is a leader in his field. He has done a lot to help the visually impaired with his research and inventions.

Instead we were greeted by a completely different conversation. [Paul] politely mentioned that his lawyer informed him that in order to protect his IP he needed to let [Vijay] know exactly how the information could be used. No cease and desist, in fact he encouraged [Vijay] to continue his open research as long as he made it clear that the methods described could not be used to make a marketable product without infringing on [Paul]’s patents. They’d need to get in touch with [Paul] and work something out before doing such.

[Vijay] responded very well to this information. His original goal was to produce a cheap braille display that could be made and sold by anyone. However, he did use [Paul]’s work as a basis for his variation. Since [Paul]’s commercial interests relied on his patent, there was a clear conflict, and it became obvious to [Vijay] that if he wanted to meet his goal he’d have to pick a new direction. So, he released his old designs as Creative Commons, since the CERN license he was using was invalidated by [Paul]’s patent. He made it very clear that anyone basing their work off those designs would have to get in touch with [Paul]. Undaunted by this, and still passionate about the project, [Vijay] has decided to start from scratch and see if he can invent an entirely new, unprotected mechanism.

Yes, the patent system is actually encouraging innovation by documenting prior work while protecting commercial and time investments of beneficial inventors. Well. That’s unexpected.

Kudos to [Paul] for encouraging the exploration of home hackers rather than playing the part of the evil patent owner we’ve all come to expect from these stories. Also [Vijay], for acting maturely to [Paul]’s polite request and not ceasing his work.

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]!