Smart Canes for the Blind

smartcane

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.

UltraCane

UltraCane

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.

Marketing High Quality Digital Music, PONO

I have never managed to get into digital music for several reasons. I don’t like wearing headphones, I get paranoid as I hear people calling my name in the background, and I think that they distract people’s attention. This is really noticeable while I am riding my bike on the pavement with the kids. People who are walking while listening to headphones are less aware of their surroundings, they tend to zig zag while they are walking and they cannot hear you coming.

This report in Businessweek addressed the problem a few years ago, although it has many methodological issues, and this article on the Treehugger website offers similar data while raising some good questions about the intentions and interpretations.

In Kenya they seem to be taking the problem seriously and in fact it will soon be a traffic offense to cross roads in Mombasa while wearing headphones or on the phone if legislation proposed by the Mombasa County Assembly is approved.
So no headphones means I don’t have one of those miniature storage devices to listen to. But I have never really got into digital downloads either. The problem there is quality. I like vinyl, take a look at the photo below of my record player.

My Sharp Record Player

My Sharp Record Player

This is a beautiful machine, 1983, plays both sides of the record, sumptuous quality, style personified and even comes in a portable version (mine also runs on batteries but the speakers don’t attach as the portable versions do).

So I have never had a system to play digital music that is half as good as this, although recently I have got closer with the Studio Pro 4 speakers that I found by the side of the street here in Cambridge (see this post for details). But even taking that into account, the sound is just not the same.

I have a vinyl and CD copy of the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, and playing the two together the difference in enormous. The digital version is sharper and the sounds are purer, but that was not what the boys had in mind when they were recording it. On MP3 the differences are even more noticeable. But convenience rules nowadays, and streaming of low quality music reigns.

Now Niel Young is with me on this, as are Sting and various other musicians. Niel wants to offer high quality music reproduction to people like me, and is preparing to launch his new baby Pono.

The player looks a bit like a regular MP3 player, but the files are much bigger so not as easily stored or downloaded, but the quality is much higher (say those who are marketing it). You can find some statistics in the article above. The data would suggest a vast improvement in quality, but as ever the proof of the pudding as they say.

And there is a cost issue. The player will cost about $400, and an album maybe $25. This is obviously marketed at people who have some disposable income and are looking for quality, probably musicians in their 40’s just like me.

We might wonder how big the market is, but if we note that the project raised about $2.5 million on Kickstart in a few days, maybe there is enough money and enough people around to make it a success.

So the question is for the technology community, will you (or more importantly I)  buy it?

Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology

Last month the Northwestern University in the USA published a national survey entitled Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology. The report is available for free download through the Parenting CC Portal , but here I would like to take a quick look at some of the findings and questions raised and see if we can provoke some debate.

Multiple Screen Viewing

Multiple Screen Viewing

The study explores how parents are incorporating new digital technologies (iPads, smartphones) as well as older media platforms (TV, video games, and computers) into their family lives and parenting practices, and it gives an idea of how parents use and view this technology.

We should point out that this is a US based survey.

The 10 key finding could be seen as the following:

1 While new media technologies have become widespread, a majority of parents do not think they have made parenting any easier.

2 Parents use media and technology as a tool for managing daily life, but books, toys, and other activities are used more often.

3 Parents still turn to family and friends for parenting advice far more often than to new media sources like websites, blogs, and social networks.

4 Parents do not report having many family conflicts or concerns about their children’s media use.

5 There is still a big gap between higher- and lower- income families in terms of access to new mobile devices.

6 Parents are less likely to turn to media or technology as an educational tool for their children than to other activities.

7 Parents assess video games more negatively than television, computers, and mobile devices.

8 For each type of technology included in the survey, a majority of parents believe these devices have a negative impact on children’s physical activity, the most substantial negative outcome attributed to technology in this study.

9 Many parents report using media technology with their children, but this “joint media engagement” drops off markedly for children who are six or older.

10 Parents are creating vastly different types of media environments for their children to grow up in, and, not surprisingly, the choices they make are strongly related to their own media use.

Some other interesting points arise, such as that 40% of families are described as media heavy and spend more than 11 hours a day in front of the screen. Half of all families surveyed have 3 TV’s or more in the house. 40% of 6 to 8 year olds have a TV in their bedroom. 70% of parents state that having mobile devices has not made parenting easier with 40% stating that they have a negative social skills effect upon the children.

The conclusions are in some ways surprising though as the authors demonstrate evidence that parents are still more likely to resort to traditional means of entertainment as rewards and punishment, and they are convinced enough about the educational possibilities offered by so called new media to not worry too much about their negative effects.

An interesting read if you have half an hour, but comments and debate about the summary above would also be educational.