ccording to statistics by Curable Blindness, there are an estimated 15 million blind people in India with an additional 52 million who are visually impaired. With the aim to make life easier for them, a team of three Young India Fellows, Jatin Sharma, Tushar Chugh and Rolly Seth are working on developing a haptic belt to aid the visually impaired through motion sensors. The three are working on this project as part of the Experiential Learning Module at Young India Fellowship Programme, under the tutelage and mentorship of Prof. Rahul Magharam, Director mLAB, University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science.
"The life of a blind person is often taken for granted and the only navigation help available to them is the walking stick. The stick, while effective, has limited reach and often does not detect obstacles above ground," says Seth. "That's how we came up with viSparsh – a tech-packed device that is affordable for an average Indian and easy to use. We strongly believe that technology must be complemented with user-based feedback with extensive evaluation and field tests."
A combination of vision (vis) and touch (sparsh), the device is essentially a waist belt. It is programmed to detect obstacles in the user's path and generate signals in the form of vibrations indicating its location. These signals help the users form a virtual image of the obstacle and help him/her to divert their path. The intensity of the vibrations change based on the distance from the obstacle.
The device uses the same technology employed by Microsoft's Kinect, a motion sensing input device (to detect obstacles) used in the Xbox 360 video game console. "Just like Xbox, the belt also employs a single board computer as the processing unit to map obstacles and the vibration motors alert the user about the obstacle. With hands-free and audio-free touch feedback along the waist, the belt provides rapid and effective response without overloading the faculties of the wearer," explains Chugh.
After making the sample belt in the first stage, it is now being evaluated and tested for usability in different work and real-world environments. The team now plans to deploy more units with more compact on-board electronics. The project, currently in its second stage, is being tested with blind users. The team has undertaken several electronics hardware and software modifications to improve battery life, feedback actuators and usability.
"After the Phase-1 of the project, we now need to conduct several experiments in various configurations and with different materials. Accordingly, algorithmic changes will be made. Efforts need to be channelised towards the power and size of the belt too. The off-the-shelf components must be replaced by a dedicated hardware which would make the belt wearable. Overall, we aim to make this prototype a viable product so that it can help the target mass," says Sharma.