Smart Canes for the Blind


Last week I wrote about Martina Caironi and prosthetic limbs. Today I want to sort of continue the theme by looking at technological aids for the blind or visually impaired. Many readers will have smartphones in their hands and smartmeters in their homes, but I would like to introduce you all to the world of smart-canes.

A cane offers a lot of information to a blind user, but it tends to concentrate on the floor or at best below knee level. Users can avoid objects that are attached to the floor, but overhanging tree branches and other free standing objects are much more difficult to detect. I would like to take a look at two possible solutions, one produced in India and relatively low cost, and the other produced in the UK and relatively high cost.

The Smartcane is the Indian solution, see the photo above. It costs about $50 US, and its designers say it is innovative and user centric. It detects obstacles using sonic waves and the presence of obstacles is conveyed through intuitive vibratory patterns. It is powered using a rechargeable Li–ion battery, and is seperate from the cane, so the user attaches the technology to their existing cane.

The Specs (as taken from the website):

Adjustable detection range: User can switch between long (3 metre) and short (1.8 metre) range mode depending on the usage scenarios such as outdoor, indoor or crowded places.
Ergonomic grip for comfortable holding and cane tapping: Can be held by different gripping styles, allowing users to use their natural cane holding and mobility techniques.
High detection sensitivity: The sensors can detect a 3 centimetre wide pipe from 3 metres distance, ensuring reliable detection of objects in the detection range.
Four intuitive and distinctive vibration patterns indicating obstacle distance.
Vibrations are uniformly produced on the entire grip: Non-localized vibration feedback allows user to conveniently grip the device.
Does not interfere with the auditory environment surrounding the user Vibrations allow discreet continuous use without making the user conscious or creating annoyance to others
Adjustable sensor orientation: Allows people of different heights and with different cane holding styles to direct the sensors appropriately.
In-built rechargeable battery with a long battery back-up: Removing of batteries for charging is not required.
Fully accessible user interface: Simple and distinguishable beeps to convey the battery charge status, low battery warning and charging status.
Failure detection of key components: Users informed immediately on failure of sensors and/ or vibrator through special alarm signals.
Detects fast approaching objects in the detection range: Especially helpful in detection of reversing vehicles.
Easy attachment / detachment from a white cane: Allows for compatible white cane replacement by the user himself.
Multiple colour options: Available in two non- flashy and elegant colours
Robust design: Can withstand accidental fall
Splash proof: Prevents damage during light rain
Conforms to international quality standards

Sounds like a deal to me!
In the UK users can order the above or splash out on another product called Ultracane. The Ultracane works in a similar way to the Smartcane, but it is a single piece of equipment. You order the cane by length. It boasts more or less the same technical specs as the above, but the batteries are interchangeable (so it does not look as if they are rechargeable in situ), it has a strap to aid in holding it, it is foldable and has a replaceable tip. It works over 4 mtrs in front (further than the Smartcane) and 1.6 mtrs in an upward direction. It also has a twin range, choice of tip, is shower-proof, and is available in any colour you like as long as it’s white.



It costs somewhere in the region of $900 in the UK, has a 12 month guarantee and there is a service centre in case of accidents.

I am sure that much of the difference in price is due to development expenses, the Ultracane was very much on its own when it was developed, and has been on the market for several years. The website hosts many happy testimonials. I am pleased to see the development in India though, as it may give many in the developing world access to the kinds of aids that we in Europe have. Ultracane has also developed the Ultrabike, giving the partially sighted the chance to take to the bike paths in safety.

Check out the websites linked above for more information.

Martina Caironi, Paralympians and prosthetics


Last weekend I had the pleasure of talking to the Italian paralympian Martina Caironi. For those of you who might not know her, she won a Gold Medal in London in the 100 mtr T42 category in a new World Record time, Gold in the World Championships in the long jump and again in the 100 mtrs, and just last month took the World Record over 200 mtrs. This is her in the photo above, she is the fastest para-athletic woman on Earth.

I have long had an interest in prosthetics and the borderline between human and machine. Readers might remember the review of the film Fixed that I wrote last year, and some may even remember my first post here about elective amputation in favour of prosthetics.

So as you might imagine I had a lot to ask. Regarding where the human body ends and the prosthetic begins, Martina told me that the question is very much down to your own point of view. She said that she knows where her prosthesis is without looking, so it seems very much an extension of her body. She can stand on one leg. You would not even realize she was wearing it if you saw her walk across the street.

I wonder whether it actually becomes part of your body though, but I am not sure that this is the case. She explained that you have to learn how to use it, how much you can push without causing injury, and a great deal is down to the quality of the prosthesis. It definitely seems to be an instrument for her.

We also talked about parity between para and non para athletes. She said that in the UK there is parity, and the races have prizes. This is not however the case in all countries, and she gave me some examples where the race organizers “don’t even pay your hotel bill”. This was a debate that really took off in the UK after the London Olympics and Paraolympics. It was noted that gold medal winners in the Olympics go on to make a lot of money through sponsorship, but that paralympians do not always have the same opportunities.

If you search the Internet you find many examples of countries that offer the same prizes to both sets of athletes, but you also find articles that explain that paralympians are paid less because the governing bodies find it difficult to raise the same amount of sponsorship. I am pleased to say that Martina makes a living from her athletics today, and rightly so given her dedication.

If you would like to watch Martina winning her gold medal here it is.

I should tell you that I have known Martina for some years, she was one of my students when I was an English teacher in Italy. She lost the bottom half of one leg in a scooter accident, and for a while was on crutches as the wound healed and the prosthetic was prepared. The fitting process took some time, and was uncomfortable when it was not quite right, so we are dealing with a precise instrument that has to be well fitted. While running she uses a blade, if you are interested in learning how they work take a look here.

Most of Martina’s interviews that we find on the web are in Italian, which doesn’t say much for her charlatan English teacher, but one of the things that she maintains is that sport gives people who have lost some mobility the chance to push their limits. Instead of accepting limitations, it pushes the athlete into going ever further, acting as a positive force for well-being. It has given her the possibility of experiencing things that many of us might dream of, with the fortune of having access to such technology through a fine center of excellence here in Italy.

Readers might also want to take a look at the Robohand website. They use 3D printers to make prosthetics, and recently unveiled a project that aims to commercialize a prosthetic leg. I think this type of technology could bring vast improvements to the prosthetics world.

I also urge you to read this article by Erin Strait that is a free download. It describes the development of artificial legs in developing countries, the materials used and the costs. Some solutions are ingenious and not costly. See below for an artificial leg made from used bike parts, they cost less than a dollar each to make.

bike foot

Facebook’s Social Research Experiment

Facebook are back in the news again, this time for conducting research without the consent of their users. Although maybe that is a false statement, users may well have signed those rights away without realizing too.

All Facebook did was to “deprioritizing a small percentage of content in News Feed (based on whether there was an emotional word in the post) for a group of people (about 0.04% of users, or 1 in 2500) for a short period (one week, in early 2012). Nobody’s posts were “hidden,” they just didn’t show up on some loads of Feed. Those posts were always visible on friends’ timelines, and could have shown up on subsequent News Feed loads”. This is the explanation offered by the author of the report about the experiment. Read the full text here.

Simply speaking they wanted to adjust the type of information a user was exposed to to see if it effected their mood. So if a user receives lots of positive news, what will happen to them? What will they post about?

Some studies have suggested that lots of Facebook use tends to lead to people feeling bad about themselves. The logic is simple, all my friends post about how great their lives are and about the good side we might say. I who have a life that has both ups and downs are not exposed to the downs, so I feel that I am inadequate.

This sounds reasonable. I am not a Facebook user but the odd messages I get are rarely about arguing with partners, tax problems, getting locked out of the house, flat tyres, missed meetings or parking tickets. I presume Facebook users do not suffer from these issues, they always seem to be smiling.

So in order to test the hypothesis a little manipulation of the news feed. More positive or more negative words, and then look to see how the posts are effected. The theory above does not seem to hold water as a statistic however, although bearing in mind the methodology etc (and the conductor) I take the claims with a pinch of salt. More positive words tend to lead to more positive posts in response.

Hardly rocket science we might say.

I have a degree in sociology, an MA in Applied Social research and work in the field. Conducting experiments of this type is not allowed in professional circles, it is considered unethical, there is no informed consent, rights are infringed upon and the list goes on. What if somebody did something serious during the experiment?

Of course “The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product”.

If readers are interested in looking at a few other fun experiments that might be considered ethically dubious I can offer a few. Check out the Stanley Milgram experiment, where people administered (False) electric shocks to other people who got the answers to their questions wrong. Yale University here, not a fringe department of Psychology. Researchers were investigating reactions to authority, and the results are very interesting, but you couldn’t do it today.

Or how about the so-called Monster study. The Monster Study was a stuttering experiment on 22 orphan children in Davenport, Iowa, in 1939 conducted by Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa. After placing the children in control and experimental groups, Research Assistant Mary Tudor gave positive speech therapy to half of the children, praising the fluency of their speech, and negative speech therapy to the other half, belittling the children for every speech imperfection and telling them they were stutterers. Many of the normal speaking orphan children who received negative therapy in the experiment suffered negative psychological effects and some retained speech problems during the course of their life. The University of Iowa publicly apologized for the Monster Study in 2001.

Terrible as these experiments may sound, they were conducted in the name of science. Their results may have proved useful. Facebopok (along with 23andME and other commercial entities) are behaving in the way they are because they want to make more money, their interest is solely there (even if they dress it up as better user experience). And in the case of Facebook they have access to 1.3 billion users, and mandate to do whatever they like with them.

Amazon – destruction and revival

Amazon's LogoAmazon. A great big, greedy multinational company. Destroying countless companies and even eradicating whole industries in a matter of years.

France has recently taken measures to protect book shops, as it understands the devastating impact Amazon’s operations can have on a country. Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s founder) argues that “Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling” suggesting that people want to buy books online now, and that virtual books would be rising in popularity without Amazon’s help.

In the UK, Amazon have come under scrutiny for not paying their fair share of tax.

BBC research suggests that the way in which Amazon treat their employees, means that their employees face a higher risk of mental illness.

There are numerous other scandals surrounding this online retail giant, but is it all bad? Believe it or not, Amazon is also proving a critical element in the survival of some industries and communities.

Royal Mail

Royal Mail and AmazonThe Royal Mail has had a turbulent decade. The internet has started to reduce the number of letters sent. Why pay to send a letter when you can send an email for free? Why fill your house with bank statements and insurance documents, when you can now access them all online? There are of course reasons why you might want to send a letter or receive a hard copy of something, however ultimately, the rise of the internet has significantly impacted the demand for postal services.

Amazon has actually played a critical role in the success of Royal Mail over the last few years. Yes if someone shops online, shops loose out on purchases, however online orders have to be delivered somehow, and the organisation with by far the biggest distribution network in the UK, is the Royal Mail. As a result, Amazon currently work closely with Royal Mail and provide the organisation with a massive amount of business.

So am I saying Amazon is actually good for Royal Mail? Well until Amazon opens up its own distribution network, and fills the skies with drones, yes, I think it is.

Rural Communities

Remote communities are often cut off from the rest of society in many ways. They often have very few local shops, which do not stock a wide range of goods, meaning local residents often have to travel miles to shop, or just go without. If you want to buy a new radio alarm clock (costing £20) do you take a 30 mile round trip to the nearest town to buy it, or do you order it on Amazon – probably for £15 – and have it delivered to your door the next day?

Without Amazon (and other online retailers) such communities would be cut off, leading to people either having to leave, or them feeling isolated and outdated.

Small Retailers

Like eBay, Amazon lets anyone buy and sell their goods through the site. Customers have the assurance that they will get good customer service, and if something goes wrong, Amazon will deal with the problem.

Many individuals now make a living from selling goods through Amazon. Some manufacturers sell directly through Amazon. Some people buy goods somewhere else and then sell them on Amazon for a profit. So Amazon is creating more jobs than just those who work for the company.


Amazing, J.K. Rowling struggled to get the first book of her Harry Potter series published. She was turned down several times, before she eventually managed to persuade Bloomsbury to publish her book. Amazon lets anyone publish a book. Nobody reviews it to see if it is any good, it just gets ran through a copyright checker, which determines whether it is original or not, and therefore how much of any profits the author is able to take home.

Our in-house expert on this is Mr Hankins, so if you want any more info, check out his article on the book he wrote and published on Amazon, and feel free to ask him question there.

Are Amazon another Google? Do they want to own everything, and destroy all their competition. Probably yes. But need everything they do be negative? No, almost everything they do will have some good related to it.

Ocean Cleanup

We have all heard about the problem of the oceans getting cluttered up with plastic. Unfortunately, solving the problem of marine plastic pollution is not as simple as picking up all of the pieces of plastic. While a lot of plastic pollution is concentrated in the gyres, it is not floating in a single mass on the surface. Pieces of plastic are distributed vertically, through the water column. Plastic breaks down into tiny particles in the ocean, making clean-up efforts very difficult. One of the many challenges of cleanup is how to remove the plastics from the ocean without also removing or damaging marine life.

The Natural Resources Defense Council website has lots of information related to the problem. They also describe some of the possible solutions as also being problematic. This is what they say about bioplastics and their marketing:

“The term “bioplastics” is increasingly being used to refer to a wide range of products, some of which are primarily or entirely plant-derived, others of which contain fossil-fuel-derived plastic, and all of which might be biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, some combination, or none of the above. While many companies are marketing these products as “green” alternatives to traditional plastics, the reality is more complex. Even biodegradable and compostable plastics are typically designed to break down efficiently only in commercial composting systems; on land or in water, these plastics generally persist long enough to cause potential hazards to water systems and wildlife. Any plastic, regardless of whether it is derived from plants or from fossil fuels, should be properly disposed of, and ideally should be recyclable and/or compostable to avoid the need to landfill.

Besides the issues related to improper disposal, production of bioplastics is also potentially problematic. Corn-based bioplastics are some of the most widely available bioplastics today — while these represent a positive step in the growing market toward finding alternatives to non-renewable, fossil-fuel-derived plastic, they rely on the production of corn, which raises concerns about agricultural impacts on land use, food production and global warming. These production impacts are all significantly reduced by specifying bioplastic products made from waste-based agricultural residues (residues left over after harvest from an existing agricultural land use which would otherwise be treated as waste). Replacing some current plastics with renewable bioplastics (especially those made using agricultural residues) is a promising way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but more research is needed to develop better products which will reduce the reliance on non-renewable resources and address concerns associated with marine plastic pollution”.

Interesting food for thought, so bioplastics do not seem to offer a solution. What we need to do is stop putting plastics into the oceans and try to get the plastic out that is already there.

The Ocean Clean up organization believe they have found a viable way to proceed with the removal part of my great plan, and have launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise the money to put their idea into full production. 19-year-old Boyan Slat has been leading a team that have designed a system that helps the ocean to clean itself. The system uses a series of solid floating barriers that are placed in the ocean. The currents and wind force the ocean to pass under the barriers, but anything that floats or is neutral in the water (plastic for example) cannot pass and so is collected in the boom. The plastic collected can then be reused. The website has a more detailed explanation and a glossy video.

This concentration of the waste means that it can then be removed from the booms easily, and at much lower cost both economically and environmentally that using other methods. Check out the concept here.

So all they need is to raise $2 million to step up into the next phase. At the time of writing the crowdfunding campaign has raised more than $765,000, and with 80 days to go it looks hopeful to me. If you have a few quid to spare it might be a good investment.

Readers might like to have a look at a post I wrote earlier this year about the INSS meeting in Charlotte. The post includes a review and photos of an art installation called “The Real Toy Story”, that includes a giant baby stuffed with waste plastic taken from the sea.


This week I want to put two of my little pets together. Nanotechnology and food might sound like two very different topics, like a cat and a gerbil to use the pet metaphor, but you would be surprised. Many products in fact have manufactured nanoparticles in them, and we eat them.

Now we might ask if this is safe, and some would say of course it is. Some have great reservations about it, and some point to the fact that there has been little research done into the matter and that it might be better not to eat them anyway.

Friends of the Earth US have recently published a report entitled Tiny Ingredients, Big Risks, and it is free to download here.

To give you a flavour of what is on offer, I just take a few lines from the report:

A ten fold increase in unregulated and unlabeled nanofoods over the last 6 years

Nanomaterials are found in a broad aray of everyday food (cheese, chocolate, breakfast cereals etc)

Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and packaging

An increasingly large body of peer reviewed evidence indicates that nanomaterials may harm human health and the environment

Nano agrochemicals are now being used on farms so entering the environment

US regulation is wholly inadequate

Public involvement in decision-making regarding these problems is necessary

The products containing unlabeled nano-ingredients range from Kraft American Singles to Hershey’s chocolate. They are made by major companies including Kraft (KRFT), General Mills (GIS), Hershey (HSY), Nestle (NSRGY), Mars, Unilever (UL), Smucker’s (SJM) and Albertsons. But due to a lack of labeling and disclosure, a far greater  number of food products with undisclosed nanomaterials are likely currently on the market.

To give you an idea we are talking about silver, titanium dioxide, zink and zink oxide, silicon and copper, as well as the traditional carbon nano tubes that are found in food packaging and freshness labelling technologies.

The report documents 85 food and beverage products on the market known to contain nanomaterials — including brand name products, and points out that the nanofood industry will soon be worth $20 billion.

This is a detailed report, it lists the products that have been found to contain these materials, the health problems associated with ingestion of such materials in animals and calls for action. It does not make for light reading, but it appears to me to be a technology that is being sneaked in through the back door, and soon like genetic modification will be difficult to avoid.

Take a look back at my food series for more tasty stuff.

Discover a New Planet


The days of discovering planets by pointing a telescope at the skies are long gone. If you are interested in discovery you can join the Galaxy Zoo project.

The Galaxy Zoo project has been running for several years, and involves hundreds of thousands of people. One of the problems for scientists today is the analysis of the enormous amounts of scientific data generated. This example is that of The Hubble telescope. It captures such a large amount of images that they risk never being studied, but one way of getting round this problem is to invite non scientists to view the pictures online and classify what they see. The tutorial on their website is simple to follow and in a few minutes you are away and participating in scientific discovery.
There is always the possibility of finding something new too, as in the example of the dutch primary school teacher Hanny Van Arkel who now has an object known as “Hanny’s Voorwerp” named after her, an object that would probably never have been noted had it not been for Ms Arkel’s lay interest in star gazing.

When looking for planets and other objects scientists rely on mathematics to determine where they may be located. Incredibly enough they have been doing it for many years too, and Neptune was in fact discovered after its position was mathematically predicted.

The planet Neptune was mathematically predicted by Urbain Le Verrier, with telescopic observations confirming the existence of a major planet made on the night of September 23–24, 1846, working from Le Verrier’s calculations. It was a sensational moment of 19th century science and dramatic confirmation of Newtonian gravitational theory.
By 1846 the planet Uranus had completed nearly one full orbit since its discovery by William Herschel in 1781, and astronomers had detected a series of irregularities in its path which could not be entirely explained by Newton’s law of gravitation. These irregularities could, however, be resolved if the gravity of a farther, unknown planet were disturbing its path around the Sun.

So nowadays there is an algorithm that helps us of course, and an educational game, and you can play with it if you like. It is fantastically titled Super planet crash. The site that hosts this game is a portal to an entire series of worlds. Planet exploration worlds.

But back to the game. Using Newton’s laws of gravity the game allows you to place planets in orbit around a sun. Each planet has its correct gravitational pull (they are different sizes of course) and this pull effects the orbits of the other planets. The objective is to build a solar system that functions for 500 years without the planets crashing into each other or falling out of orbit.

Once you get involved in putting large planets into orbit the game gets quite difficult. It’s fun for kids and adults and educational, and might lead you into becoming a discoverer yourself.