Ultrasonic Cane Scans a Blind Person’s Surroundings for Obstacles
Every day, Indirani Sankari, a petite 23-year-old schoolteacher in Mumbai, commutes between a western suburb and the city’s southeastern edge. The trek takes two hours, three trains, and a lot of walking—each way. But that’s not the most painful part. Sankari is visually impaired, and her route is a gauntlet of threats: signboards, glass doors, benches, stray animals. “I’ve been attacked by dogs and cows, and I’ve been hurt everywhere,” she says.
In the past year, though, Sankari has managed to get to and from work largely unscathed. For this, she thanks her SmartCane, a device that sits atop her regular walking stick and uses ultrasonic beams to scan her surroundings. Whenever she approaches an obstacle, the contraption buzzes against her palm, intensifying the vibrations the closer she gets.
The SmartCane was developed by computer scientist Rohan Paul when he was an undergrad at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. After nearly a decade of testing, the device launched last year; all or part of its $50 cost is often subsidized by nonprofits or the government, and so far 10,000 Indians have picked one up. Now a postdoc at MIT’s AI lab, Paul is expanding distribution to other countries, including Thailand, Qatar, Iran, Ghana, and Ethiopia. He relies, he says, on the word of mouth of satisfied customers. Sankari is certainly one: She swears people can no longer tell she’s impaired at all.
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