Vibrating Clothes Could Help Blind People Navigate

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The New York-based company Tactile Navigation Tools is developing a hands-free wearable device that uses sensors to detect obstacles and can alert the wearer to them with vibrations. Known as Eyeronman, the device could aid not only the blind, but also firefighters, soldiers and others, its developers say.

About 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired, according to the World Health Organization. Yet in developed countries, most blind people still navigate using the standard white cane, which was invented in 1921. [Bionic Humans: Top 10 Technologies]

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When soldiers return from war, "the ones with limb loss are getting expensive devices, but the ones with vision loss — we're giving them a stick," said Dr. JR Rizzo, a rehabilitation doctor at NYU Langone Medical Center and the company's founder and chief medical adviser. "It's a little ridiculous," he said.

When Rizzo was 15 years old, he was diagnosed with choroideremia, a rare retinal degenerative disease that causes progressive vision loss, and he is now legally blind. He thinks blind people should have more advanced sensory prostheses.

"I don't care what the vision loss is from," Rizzo told Live Science. The goal is to increase mobility and get people integrated back into society, he said.

Navigation by Vibration

Eyeronman consists of a vest outfitted with sensors and emitters for lidar, a laser-based system used in driverless cars; ultrasound, which is used by bats and other animals for echolocation; and infrared, a type of electromagnetic radiation used by pit vipers to detect prey by sensing body heat.

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The system converts input from these sensors into vibrations in a T-shirt made from electro-active polymers. For example, an obstacle on the wearer's lower left would cause the lower-left part of the shirt to vibrate. The system is designed to provide 360-degree obstacle detection, its developers say.

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