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GPS Device a 'Sixth Sense' for the Impaired

Make a left at the apple, right at the hammer, straight past the bird, right at the hat and left at the tree. Got it? If you're like most volunteers at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, no, you don't get it. With those kinds of verbal instructions, most people make wrong turns somewhere in the hospital. But when they wear a high-tech belt invented at the University of Waterloo, volunteers in a study of the technology always make it through the maze without a problem.

The Tactile Sight belt contains a GPS [global positioning system] receiver and four motors: one in front, one in back and one at each side. If the destination is to the left, the left buzzer vibrates. If it's 45 degrees to the right, the front and right buzzers vibrate. "This is almost like a sixth sense," says the belt's creator, systems design engineering Prof. John Zelek. "It's another way of tapping into the primitive brain."

The belt is designed for blind people and Alzheimer's patients. Toronto Rehab plans to test it on seniors with dementia this summer. If it works, the belt could greatly improve life for people with memory problems, says Lawrence Grierson, the post-doctoral researcher conducting the trials. "It would extend the length of time that people could live independently and in the community, which has an effect on decreasing the load of memory clinics and assisted-living care centres," he says.

The belt is the result of several years of research, some of it seemingly unrelated. Before he got involved in haptics, or the sense of touch, Zelek researched computer optics. When he was at the University of Guelph in the early 2000s, he was working on improving robots' ability to recognize objects they saw. It was innovative technology, but only the Pentagon could afford it. "A lot of the technology I was developing, most of the applications were for the military," Zelek says. "I found that not motivating."

Instead of helping robots to see, Zelek decided he would help people to do the same. He and his students created a device for the blind that sensed when the user was nearing a wall or object and communicated that to the user via a vibrating glove. The invention drew rave reviews, and Zelek hasn't given up on it. But it suffered from the same problem as the robotics technology--the components make it too expensive.

So in 2006, Zelek went in a new direction. He stuck with the idea of communication through vibration, but replaced the vision equipment with global positioning system technology, which is getting cheaper all the time. With GPS, Zelek went from locating objects to helping people orient themselves in a global context. In 2006, Zelek and his team were able to create a clunky prototype using off-the-shelf parts.

Heather Carnahan, a former UW [University of Waterloo] kinesiology professor with links to Toronto Rehab, heard about the project and suggested to Zelek that Alzheimer's patients could also benefit from his work.

Two years ago, the U.S. [United States] Alzheimer's Association granted Zelek $156,000 for his research. With that funding and $40,000 from the Ontario Centres of Excellence, Zelek was able to hire a hardware designer and a fashion designer to create a final product. Zelek created Tactile Sight Inc. to commercialize the belt. Perry Roach, head of Guelph software company Netsweeper Inc., serves as Tactile Sight's chief executive officer in his spare time.

The brains of the device sit in a little plastic box kept in a pouch. It contains the GPS, microprocessor, altimeter, compass and accelerometer or gyroscope. One likely application of the belt involves using Bluetooth to talk to a smartphone running Google Maps. The belt would help people follow a route drawn up by the mapping software. Blind people could program the device themselves using adaptive technology that allows them to work with computers, Zelek said. An Alzheimer's patient would likely require a caretaker to enter instructions.

The belt would not replace a blind person's cane or guide dog. It would work in tandem with other assistance to help the visually impaired get through a city. Jim Sanders, former president of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, has tried out the belt and has high hopes for its success. "For those of us who are experienced white cane users, it is still stressful, particularly getting around on your own in unfamiliar territory.

"If we could have more information to tell us more about the environment that we're navigating, it's going to make it safer, easier and less stressful."

Because the GPS equipment can work indoors and pinpoint its location down to a half metre, the belt might also help people manoeuvre through a building. Zelek foresees the device helping Alzheimer's patients follow a daily schedule, pointing them from bedroom to washroom to kitchen. By the end of the year, Zelek hopes to have 10 to 20 blind people and Alzheimer's patients trying out his devices. Eventually, the belts might be sold for a few hundred dollars to end users, nursing homes and insurance companies that want to help policyholders avoid danger.

Emergency services might also be interested in the belt. Using a floor map of a burning building, a fire chief could program movement instructions into the device so firefighters would have one less thing to think about when they go inside a building to try to find someone or put out a blaze.

The combination of GPS and haptics could serve other markets as well. Deaf people, for example, can't hear a talking GPS device in the car, but they could feel a vibration in their seat.

At a conference in Switzerland, a couple of Israelis told Zelek their army would find his technology interesting. This time, though, Zelek isn't swearing off selling to the military. "If they want to buy a whole bunch of units, that would increase the volume, meaning we could decrease the price to the disabled population," he says.

Reprinted from the Waterloo Record, Ontario, March 21, 2009:

Photo: GPS Tactile Sight Belt