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Tattoos and car sensors inspire UArizona team’s new navigational tool for the visually impaired

KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Mar. 9, 2022 at 12:18 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Those who are visually impaired may have a new navigational tool thanks to a collaboration at the University of Arizona.

Dr. Sunggye Hong is an associate professor of the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies and the program coordinator of the visual impairments teacher training program.

“People with visual impairments are capable of doing all things that other people would be able to do. If there is a certain task that is difficult for them to perform, then I think it is the duty of science and technology to figure it out and make it happen,” Dr. Hong said.

Dr. Hong lost his sight as a toddler, so he depends on his cane to get from one place to another.

“A cane has been serving its purpose for people with visual impairments for a long time. It is part of myself,” Dr. Hong said.

Dr. Hong also said while the cane is helpful, it leaves a lot of his body vulnerable.

“Say there are things above your head or your shoulder area, the area where the cane would not be able to cover, then the only way for you to detect it is detecting it with your body, so that is not the most reasonable way of doing. In some cases, it can be pretty dangerous,” Dr. Hong said.

Dr. Hong began to collaborate with Dr. Wolfgang Fink, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the university.

Dr. Fink has spent years working on computerized vision systems to help autonomous robots see and navigate.

“I was wondering if Dr. Fink and his team could develop a magic solution to solve all problems,” Dr. Hong said with a laugh. “I definitely would appreciate having an option where I would not be worrying too much about hanging branches, not worrying too much about those high-bed trucks that your cane would probably just go under.”

Dr. Fink worked with a group of neuroscience and engineering students to create a device the team named the Visual Impairment Subtle Touch Aid, or Vista.

The technology consists of two belts.

The first belt is worn just as any other belt, around the waist, and is equipped with sensors that can detect obstacles around the user.

Dr. Fink said this piece of the device was inspired by the radar sensors on the back of cars.

The second belt is worn around the user’s ribcage and vibrates when the sensors detect the user is near an object.

The closer the user gets to the object, the faster the vibrations.

Bassil Ramadan is a researcher on the team who said they decided to put the vibrating portion of the technology around the ribcage after thinking about tattoos.

“People who are getting tattoos report that near bone vibratory stimulus is much more salient. Similarly, here, there are not a lot of fat deposits, sit is is really a salient feature,” Ramadan said.

Ramadan said the device the team developed is a prototype and hopes the final product will be smaller and more user-friendly.

“Ideally, the user feels comfortable to wear it out in public,” Ramadan said.

Ramadan said they also hope to be able to put the sensors in the user’s shoes or in a hat as opposed to just a belt, as it would better detect overhead objects or tripping hazards.

“Science can be meaningful only when it is about people. I think the solution that Dr. Fink and his team have developed is aimed at making differences in the lives of people with visual impairments,” Dr. Hong said.

Dr. Fink said now that this team has successfully created the proof of concept, they will look for funding and possibly join forces with commercial entities to miniaturize and refine the technology.

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