White cane, white stick, guide cane -- however you refer to it -- the traditional cane for the visually impaired has long been in need of a high-tech makeover. And now it has one, with technology inspired by bats, which can “see” in the dark using echolocation.
Yes, a cane that uses sonar-like technology to see its environment and help people with visual impairments get around more safely. Far out, right?
Enter the SmartCane, developed by computer scientists in Delhi, India. It’s not a cane in and of itself. Rather it’s a small, lightweight electronic device that attaches to the handle of a typical guide cane.
The nifty, double speaker-outfitted plastic attachment emits long (9-foot) and short (6-foot) ultrasound waves. As users wave the cane from left to right when they walk, the ultrasonic beams bounce off of and identify obstacles in the user’s path, particularly above knee height, a critical ability that old-school guide canes annoyingly don’t have.
When someone or something is in the user’s way, the SmartCane vibrates to tactilely tip off the user to (insert lurking danger here, trees, moving cars, etc.), ideally in time to avert awkward and potentially dangerous collisions.
So, yeah, it works pretty much the same way bats cluck echolocating chirps to find their way and their prey in the dark, only the device doesn’t sound as, well, scary.
A similar add-on device, the UltraCane, was invented in 2011 in the United Kingdom. In a lot of ways, it works like the SmartCane, with some slight differences. Both smart cane attachment devices can be used indoors and outdoors. And their aim is the same: To keep the visually impaired on the right -- and more importantly safe -- path.
Here’s a look at the UltraCane: