Are High Tech Canes Useful or Worth It?

Yesterday I and a few other colleagues met with several students from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). They are all working on redesigning aspects of the white cane that we as blind and visually impaired people feel need improvement. Some of the things we discussed included the cane’s overall design, different cane and style preferences, challenges we encounter with the current design and potential “high tech” alternatives.

One of the students asked if we had ever used “smart canes,” and to be honest, I don’t know if such a thing exists in the market. The laser cane was developed in the 1970s, and it was a modified cane that would emit sounds and vibrations to warn people of upcoming obstacles. Given that it costs around $3,000 and that (at least I’m told) it was not always accurate, it never became popular among the blind and visually impaired. I have never seen one nor do I know anyone who used it. Lately I have read many news items about things like vibrating shoes for the blind, and I always wonder to myself if and how they will work.

On the surface it might seem like technology is the best solution for improving white canes or similar devices. People might assume that if the cane vibrates or tells me where to go, then I’m all set. Truth is though, that technology can only help to a certain extent. If a cane vibrates when it’s near every single wall, curb, poll, etc. I think I would become overwhelmed with information. The beauty of the cane is that if used correctly, it warns me of things like cracks on the sidewalk, stairs and polls that I might hit or trip over otherwise. While I would not want a “high tech” cane to warn me about every single obstacle, I think there are still areas for improvement when it comes to the physical design of the cane.

Blind and visually impaired people use their canes in indoor and outdoor settings. One of the main problems I have with the current design is the constant wear and tear of the bottom, or tip, of the cane. This is especially true when it goes through puddles or snow outside. Since canes typically have a special tip at the end to help us get better tactile feedback, this tip often damages easily with these elements. As a result, a lot of us have to frequently replace the tip. I think it’s simple things like this that can make a huge difference for cane users.

Rather than making a cane that would vibrate or beep at every wall or crack, the focus should be on making a device that would warn me of other objects I can’t see. Although the cane can only detect obstacles on the ground, there is currently no reliable method that would warn me of overhanging objects or things that stick out like tree branches and tables. I believe and hope that this is where technology can have a positive impact for us.

The future has a lot of great things in store for all of us, especially if we consider how fast technology advances. I think that if done correctly, it can also help – and even change – the way blind and visually impaired people travel independently. Many attempts have been made over the years to make “high tech” canes, but I think this doesn’t necessarily solve all of the challenges cane users face. I applaud the students from IIT for examining both “high tech” and “low tech” solutions to redesigning the white cane. Meeting with them and hearing the comments from my co-workers also made me think about things I hadn’t considered. I wish the students at IIT and everyone else working on similar projects the best of luck, and am excited to see their final product in the near future!

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