The wind was gusty, viciously throwing autumnal leaves into my face. It was almost as if the weather gods were deliberately insulting me, and I sighed as another gust blasted me, this time loaded with fine rain.
I do so love Guildford in October.
I continued to trudge up the hill to the hospital.
The Royal Surrey County Hospital was as busy as ever, and I had left myself plenty of time to get to the fracture clinic. Another trip to see the orthopaedic consultant for an assessment of my shoulder, recently the subject of arthroscopic surgery.
The main entrance to the RSCH is a congested and bustling area. To get anywhere in the hospital, visitors must run the gauntlet of the main corridor, which passes a large Costa Coffee shop, with a generous seating area and further along, a small branch of Marks and Spencer’s.
I made my way through to the fracture clinic. I checked myself in, using one of the touchscreens, and then found a seat to park up on.
I pulled a battered paperback book from my jacket pocket. I smiled as I looked at the worn, wrinkled and creased cover. Entitled “Three Cheers For Me” by Donald Jack, it told the story of a young Canadian pilot serving in the Royal Flying Corps in WWI. It’s an excellent read, if you like that sort of thing…
I bought this book (and it’s two sibling volumes) from the East Grinstead branch of W.H. Smith in 1974, whilst still at school. I must have read it twenty times over the 47 years I have owned it.
I had just settled into reading, when my attention was caught by a very loud regular clicking, and I turned to see an obviously blind chap, walking into the waiting area. He clearly could not check himself in, so I intercepted him, and offered to help.
I swiftly tapped his details into the check-in system, and found him an empty seat.
I sat next to him, and was about to engage him in conversation, when I was called in to see my specialist.
When I came out some twenty minutes later, he had gone.
I decided to have a quick coffee before leaving, and catch up on some of my book, when I heard the tapping again. I watched as the chap walked slowly down the corridor, his white cane constantly moving in front of him.
Several times he had to stop and on a couple of occasions he was jostled and bumped by others.
Whilst his white stick helped others to identify that he was visually impaired, it didn’t stop him from having to stop frequently whilst he was using the cane to detect obstacles.
I thought about this.
The white stick has been used by the blind for centuries, and has changed very little over the years. I think the only development is that folding models are now available – but other than that – not a lot.
My curiosity was now piqued. I would explore what additional assistance was available to help visually impaired members of society during their daily lives.
I decided to specifically exclude guide dogs, as not all visually impaired individuals are fortunate enough to have one
I did, however, make the assumption that all will have a white stick to signify their level of impairment.
Having researched and written several articles on wearable and medical technology, I was very interested to find that there have been some developments in assistance for the visually impaired, or the completely blind.
Even more surprising was that it uses technologies that are direct spin-offs from aerospace and automotive technology.
It seems that a team of researchers at Stanford University have developed a prototype “Smart Cane”.
Using LIDAR1 , the cane can detect and identify obstacles in the path of the walker, and lead them around them safely
The tip of the cane contains an omni-directional powered wheel, controlled by a lightweight onboard computer.
The computer uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and specialised algorithms to analyse the incoming obstacle data. It then calculates which is the best way for the person to be led to avoid the obstacle. The powered wheel is then directed to the correct position, and the motor will then drive the wheel. This causes the tip of the cane to move left or right, giving steering guidance to the user.
The stick is also equipped with other sensors which refine the guidance.
It has a GPS receiver, accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes. The data from the additional sensors may be used to analyse posture, gait, speed, acceleration and deceleration and may also be used to programme a route to be followed, say to the local pub, shopping centre or gym.
Further refinements will no doubt be possible, such as using a smartphone as the processor, and maybe linking in other technology such as overall health monitoring.
Despite all the technology, the smart cane only weighs 1.3Kg (3 pounds), but remember, this is a prototype!
It is anticipated that such a cane could be available from about US 400$ (£290.00 as of 21st October 2021)
Another research group operating out of Harvard are working a slightly different angle on helping the visually impaired.
Currently, someone who is visually impaired, or blind, will carry a long white cane as their only aid in avoiding collisions. The smart cane is designed to reduce their collisions by actively leading them right or left using LiDAR as the primary detection tool.
The Harvard team are using optical technology to reduce collision risks amongst the visually impaired.
The alternative system uses a single video camera fitted with a wide-angle lens that is connected by Bluetooth to two wrist bands.
An electronic image processor, in a self-contained unit, is worn in a small backpack and the camera unit is mounted centrally on the chest strap of the backpack.
As the individual walks, the built in AI software analyses the streaming video footage, and uses algorithms to calculate the risk of a collision using real-time data on the relative movement and trajectories of approaching and surrounding objects.
If a collision risk is detected on the left side of the wearer, then the left wristband will vibrate. A risk on the right will cause the right wristband to vibrate, and should the risk be assessed as a potential head-on collision, both wristbands will vibrate.
The system is sufficiently sophisticated to only provide alerts for dynamic risks, and will ignore any other moving objects that do not pose a risk of collision.
A study concluded that the use of such a system reduces collision risks by about 37%!
The research, was published in Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science (IOVS)
Wearable technology, or in this case, portable technology can prove to be of great benefit to those that are less able, and to allow them to navigate their way around an increasingly crowded world.
Brave New World?
 LIDAR – Acronym for Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging, which measures distance by transmitting a light pulse towards a target, and calculating the time for it to be reflected to the transmitter, allowing distance to be precisely calculated.