BlindSpot offers freedom to the visually-impaired

MADRID -- BlindSpot is a smartphone-enhanced white cane that increases the visually-impaired's independence, which is great news in a country like Spain, where the blind are treated almost like anybody else.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MADRID--BlindSpot gives white canes super powers, as it provides the visually-impaired with a smartphone and object and friend detector all in one. It enhances the independence and social skills of its users.

Selene Chew started interviewing and observing visually-handicapped people, while she was developing her senior thesis in her home country of Singapore. She found that "They are constantly in a situation that they don't know who is around them." They are consistently dependent on others to guide them.

"I realized it would be a whole new experience if they did know" what and who was around them, Chew says. "Their family members can leave them alone."

Her project looked to integrate and adapt existing smartphone applications and technologies for the visually-impaired. With BlindSpot, all notifications are audio, in a bluetooth worn by the user. Since touch screen smartphones are useless to this demographic, the adapted smartphone doesn't even feature a screen. It does contain an optical track pad, like on Blackberries, that users swipe right, left and click to select. All menus are audio, and adjustable depending on environments.

While the standard white cane helps users detect and locate objects on the ground, the simple cane cannot detect hanging objects, such as a low-hanging branch. BlindSpot has an object detector that notifies the user with a pulsing sound if something is hanging low in the direction in which they are walking. It can then either direct the user to avoid it or he or she can choose to feel and duck under the potential danger.

"There are actually a lot of applications out there," Chew says, such as GPS-based systems like Foursquare, which can be used to locate friends and family, but they are usually "not attainable by the visually-handicapped." If a friend has checked into a nearby location, the BlindSpot user is notified via bluetooth. Then, "you can choose to call that person and find them."

Most GPS-based apps have a speakerphone for directions, however, "turn left" is not always specific enough, when it could be referring to a 30-degree turn, not an exact 90-degree one. BlindSpot has a mini-pointer on the handle. "Once they are at the right angle and right direction, it moves back," Chew says.

The smaller smartphone is integrated into the handle of a modified white cane. When the user gets home, they can detach the phone for recharging and use the cane as normal. The bluetooth and smartphone are recharged by being set down on a inductive charging dock, without the user needing to fiddle with small plugs.

Chew says she decided to come to Spain to present BlindSpot because she feels the market is much more receptive here.

"I think the visually-handicapped in Spain are more independent. They attend university, act like normal people," she says. Even on the challenging-to-navigate, often-crowded streets of Madrid, every day, it is easy to spot a few blind individuals guiding themselves through the Metro with only the use of whites canes or guide dogs. Much of the city is equipped at traffic lights, which beep when it is safe to cross. All public transit and buildings have signage translated to Braille.

While she was on a visit to Madrid, Chew met up with some of the members of ONCE, Spain's huge non-profit organization dedicated to easing the lives of the visually-impaired and disabled. It assures its members have access to education, employment, rehabilitation and social activities. ONCE is one of the most well-known logos in Spain, as nearly every street corner finds someone selling the tickets to the lottery that is a fundraiser for the organization.

"They (ONCE) tell me a product like BlindSpot would really help the visually handicapped in Spain because they are more independent. They travel to work," Chew say. Because of this, she says Spain is a logical market, as she is trying to commercialize her product. It also helps that Spain is the number one country in Europe to use smartphones, per capita.

While much of her research was done in Singapore, she hasn't found a similarly enthusiastic response. "In Singapore, (the visually-handicapped) are more protected by the families. They normally don't travel out without telling anyone," Chew says. "The families didn't want their visually-handicapped (children) exposed."

"The reason I developed BlindSpot is because I hope that the visually-handicapped can become more independent," Chew says. However, "I know a product like BlindSpot wouldn't be very accepted by the locals in Singapore." She describes the locals as "more skeptical and afraid," particularly those with acquired blindness. "They are most afraid of bothering others."

She says that many of the visually-impaired in her country have jobs, mainly as telemarketers. "They memorize the route from their home to the work place...and other than that, they don't travel alone," Chew says. "Those that dare to travel out, they are more confident. Either they are born blind or they have gradual visual loss so they slowly adapt. Those that actually shut down from the world are those with sudden-acquired blindness."

The visually-impaired she interviewed "are really really interested in this project. It's more the families are more skeptical," Chew says. "The last thing they want is for the blind family member to get lost."

According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide, with 39 million being completely blind and 246 having low vision. Ninety percent of these individuals live in developing countries, where access to smartphones may be more challenging.

Chew is choosing to market BlindSpot in European countries and the United States first. She thinks that once BlindSpot is proven in these Western countries, the people of Singapore may be more welcoming of it. "It's easier to take this product into a society where they are more of these kinds of products."

Screenshot/Video: BlindSpot

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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