Melanie Wallace is an alum of the Lammerding Lab, now improving health and quality of life through innovation at 23andMe. Read more about Making an impact through genetic health innovation and education
A wearable navigation device for the blind
Dr. James Antaki, Meinig School Faculty Advisor
Sonny Carlton, Teaching Assistant
Globally, over 240 million people are either are fully blind or suffer from moderate to severe visual impairment yet have few options to help them safely navigate their surroundings. The primary solution for this population is a white cane that must be moved around the individual to detect local obstructions. But this widely accepted device has several disadvantages: its inability to efficiently detect objects far away, approaching objects, and objects that are not in the lower front span of the individual.
Modern technology necessitates a more robust and comprehensive solution to the disadvantages of cane technology. Enter undergraduate team Visation, who, through the Meinig School's senior design course, developed just such a solution. Incorporating principles of sensory-motor integration and physical impairment mediation in medicine, the team's wearable waistband can detect a user's local environment and, through a sensor-based haptic feedback system, alert them to surrounding obstructions. This advanced system can be used in conjunction with cane technology to offer a multi-layered approach to meeting this need.
While the design process for the waistband device was a lengthy one, requiring teamwork and advising every step of the way, team Visation agreed the reward of a functional prototype was worth the time and effort.
"It’s a process that is difficult to anticipate until you are face-first in the actual prototyping," noted Kevin Cavallo. "There are so many intricacies you don’t even consider until talking to stakeholders and tackling device development."
Jennifer Tieu agreed: “This project made me very cognizant and appreciative of the customer-driven and user-centric design process and its importance in developing a valuable product. We were able to gain useful insights that guided critical design decisions . . . [and learned that] producing a successful product isn’t just building a device that is exactly as the team envisioned but is rather building a device that is truly functional to its intended users.”
"It was interesting to see how sort-of overlooked things actually played some of the largest roles. Like online forums helping us connect the vibration motors to the Arduino uno, or how the ability to sew helped us tweak our waistband design," added Alexandra Calder. "It reminded me of the power of resourcefulness, which is something I will surely take with me going forward.”
On working together through a pandemic, the team said there were few issues thanks to the many open workspaces in the Meinig School Design Complex. "Aside from the shields and masks worn in the lab," said Cavallo, "everything felt pretty normal because the administration did a fantastic job ensuring that all design endeavors could continue to function during the pandemic."
Alexandra Calder added that “Open communication and equal commitment [by all team members] allowed us to make it happen."
Of the overall experience, Cavallo said, “BME Senior Design showed me that it’s possible to develop something out of nothing. What started as a simple idea from a quick, eight-minute brainstorming assignment, became a functional device that could change the lives of millions of people.”
Very soon team Visation will be working on patenting the Visation Waistband technology!