As most spaces around us are designed for a visual experience, spatial orientation and mobility are compromised for visually impaired persons. With an estimated 253 million people living with visual impairment worldwide, it is disappointing that very few advances have been made in designing technology to aid the blind navigate space. The Proximity Hat, designed by German architect Florian Braun together with researchers at Karslruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, uses ultrasonic sensors that provide the sense of proximity using pressure. This groundbreaking new approach is set to improve locomotion, and not only for the blind!
Author: Siphilele Magagula
Image: Courtesy of KIT
Significant visual impairment impacts people’s ability to carry on with daily tasks; people are more prone to falling, resulting in a need for residential care. It also causes isolation and affects mental health. A study observing data from 291,169 patients found that visually impaired patients 65 and older have a broad range of both physical and mental health comorbidities compared to those of the same age without visual impairment.
Navigating Space As A Visually Impaired Person
The term orientation refers to being aware of one’s position in relation to their surroundings and understanding the parameters of an environment; while mobility refers to one’s capability to safely and efficiently navigate a space.
The brain processes sensorimotor signals for orientation and mobility. Egocentric (imagining taking a different perspective in space) or allocentric (mentally manipulating objects from a stationary point of view) spatial representations provide us with different trajectories. These are based on the observer’s viewpoint as well as his/her awareness of the spatial relationship between the various elements present in the space. This combined information creates a map-like perspective.
So how do children and adults with visual impairments process and learn space orientation? Unlike sighted people, visually impaired people use haptic, auditory and vestibular cues to help them efficiently maneuver through environments. Unfortunately, existing technology available for the visually impaired does not take into account this multi-sensory way of processing spatial information or the variety of medical conditions and experiences. As a result, the devices tend to create sensory overload or become too complex to manipulate, especially for children - resulting in low acceptance by users.
Proximity Hat Revolutionizes Spatial Orientation & Transmission of Information
Unlike most existing technological devices the Proximity Hat is meant to be easy to use and avoid overstimulation. It introduces a new approach for transmitting spatial information to the user based on pressure. Ultrasonic sensors and pressure pads are parts of the innovative system that can be retrofitted on the head in the form of a hat or headband. This new approach was designed and developed by architect Florian Braun as his bachelor’s thesis in computer science in collaboration with researchers at Karslruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany.
The portable and lightweight system uses its sensors to measure the distance between the visually impaired user and the surrounding objects in real time. It then translates the spatial information into pressure through special pressure pads attached to the wearer’s head.
The Proximity Hat has six sensor modules, 25 square centimetres each, and are said to make up to 50 measurements per second. Each sensor pad applies pressure based on the spatial data received. The proximity to objects dictates the amount of pressure applied – the closer the wearer is to the object, the more pressure. This way, the researchers believe, the blind person could best be alerted to an imminent risk of collision. This intuitive and non-invasive device is a breakthrough in technology for the visually impaired.
The Proximity Hat may be used to benefit not only the visually impaired as the developers are looking into integrating the hat into firemen’s helmets to improve their orientation in smoke-filled rooms.
Video: Courtesy of KIT
Investing in research on how the visually impaired develop orientation and mobility skills would provide significant benefits in the development of appropriate sensory substitution systems such as the Proximity Hat. This device was developed with cooperation from the natural sciences, engineering sciences, economics, and the humanities and social sciences. The hope is that these kind of projects stimulate neuroscientists and tech researchers to recognize the potential impact of their participation in improving the quality of life of visually impaired individuals.