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Acoustic Maps to Aid the Blind

Researchers at the University of Bristol in England have developed a new method to convert images from lasers and digital cameras into real-time, three dimensional acoustic maps that help the blind navigate around obstacles in their path. The images are converted to sounds that get louder as objects get nearer, accurately reflecting their orientation with respect to the user. Coupled with related work from the University of Laguna in Spain and several other institutions, these maps could result in a workable assistive technology for the sight-impaired in the near future.

The Bristol system integrates real-time image processing with new algorithms designed to identify specific objects like trees, furniture and people. The algorithms can also identify objects in motion and predict their trajectory and speed. The images and related data are then transformed to sound using a method designed by scientists at the University of Laguna in Spain. The resulting acoustic maps are fed to blind people through a pair of headphones and thus enable them to navigate successfully around both static and moving obstacles.

The headphones use stereo sound to pinpoint a location in space. The principle is similar to the location tests frequently included in standard hearing tests where sound is fed into only one ear as the patient is asked to identify which side the sound came from. Here, the directional abilities are significantly more robust and take into account the rotational position of the wearer's head at any given moment using an integrated gyroscope developed by scientists at the University of Marche in Italy. Distance is tracked using an intensity factor--the closer the object, the louder the sound created. Imminent collisions cause a loud warning sound to ring, alerting the user to get out of the way.

Two prototypes currently exist--the first prototype uses infrared lasers mounted on the inside of a pair of glasses. With a 60-degree field of view it detects objects up to 5 metres away. The second prototype adds digital cameras on the side of a test helmet worn by users, and by so doing greatly increases the field of view covered by the map. Although not currently integrated into the device, researchers are also exploring the use of an onboard GPS (global positioning) system to help direct wearers away from known, unchanging obstacles. This could free up additional processing power for more applications and allow for improvements in the speed, distance, or angular precision of the detected data.

Considerable testing with both of these prototypes has been very successful, but researchers say more testing is needed before bringing the device to market. In particular, extensive reliability testing must be performed to ensure that the device won't suddenly stop working as a user crosses a busy street or is in some other dangerous situation.

TFOT (The Future of Things) has previously reported on other innovative assistive technologies including a new robot that can open doors for people with problems turning handles, a wheelchair that can react to the thoughts of its users and move accordingly, two devices from Honda that help people walk with a more even stride and to lift and squat more easily, and a personalized user interface that adopts itself to the specific visual and motor abilities of its users.

Read more about the new assistive technology and view a video of it in use in this news site, designed to promote research findings funded by the European Union.

Reprinted from The Future of Things, August 5, 2009.

Blind Student Checks Tech for College's Accessibility

Barrie--Georgian College student Matthew Campbell identifies--and removes--barriers many can't see. That's because he's blind.

A graduate of the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, the 22-year-old Parry Sound man is now enrolled in Georgian's computer systems technician program. In addition to his studies, he's completing his first co-op placement as an accessibility specialist in the information technology department.

He chose Georgian because the college was already more accessible than others--but that's only encouraging him to make it even more so.

"Georgian seemed to have a lot of information on its website about helping students with disabilities and a lot of colleges didn't," he said. "I had a hard time finding a computer technician program. I found 'help desk support', and I don't want to do that. I want to be the guy who runs around the building fixing things."

Like others in the I.T. (information technology) business, Campbell loves technology and exploring how various devices, programs and applications can work together. He has both an Apple Mac laptop and a Windows notebook--and is awaiting the arrival of an iPhone.

His focus as an I.T. co-op student has been the same website that attracted him to Georgian in the first place.

"I'd like to see the college move a little quicker away from Adobe's flash technology, which is being used to display video on a web page. Adobe has a very sad attitude when it comes to accessibility, especially for the Mac user," he said. "Flash is a nightmare to navigate and work with using a screen-reading program." Screen reading is built into Apple computers, he noted, while on Windows-based systems the accessibility tool must be purchased separately.

He has suggested the college give blind students a tour by adding better audio descriptions of the campus, rather than relying so heavily on the camera. "If someone developed a website with descriptive labels for images, we could get an idea of what the image is showing," he said, adding that in many cases--from email links to websites--any text on the page, rather than an icon, would give information to the visually impaired.

Graduating from the Macdonald School, Campbell has more experience with other adaptive technologies, and is working to make the college's website work with those specialized devices as well.

He's also excited by the possibilities of mainstream technology--and making it even more useful for those with disabilities. Applications for the iPhone abound (not to mention the phone has a screen-reading "voice"), and he's looking to explore how to make them work with specialized programs and devices. "I'd like to get into that, too," he said. "There are lots of possibilities.

His supervisor, web usability analyst Monika Bernolak, said that experience is a valuable asset. "We have all kinds of reports and he's given us numerous suggestions. We're listening to him, to learn and improve our pages accordingly," she said. "He tests projects for us before they go live and lets us know how we can improve. It's very important in light of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which Georgian College is strongly committed to."

Made law in 2005, the AODA sets out a series of targets to break down barriers: customer service, the built environment, employment, communication and transportation. Municipalities and public agencies must, by January, offer good customer service to all--regardless of ability or disability. Stores and others in the business of customer service have until January 2012.

Just after that, information and communication must be accessible by 2013 in the private sector. All other compliance dates have yet to be determined. The goal of the AODA is to make the province totally accessible by 2025.

"(More) companies are thinking about accessibility and how to build it into mainstream products. It's pretty sad a lot of other (technology companies) are not following Apple and making it accessible," Campbell said. "(People with disabilities) may be a minority, but we do make up market share."

As part of his co-op placement, Campbell also has an accessibility blog, at www.georgianc.on.ca/accessibility.

In September, Campbell returns to his in-class studies. One thing he will depend on isn't technical at all--but critically important in helping him make his way around: his guide dog Lillibelle.

"You'd be surprised at how many people have dogs," he said, adding he asks people not to pat the black lab while she is working. "Ask, don't assume, you can (pat the dog). Petting a dog that's working is unwise, potentially dangerous," he said, adding he's fortunate he's had no close calls due to Lillibelle being distracted from her duties.

In January, in his next co-op placement, he may be back focusing on accessibility at Georgian. At least Bernolak hopes so. "He's been a great asset," she said.

Reprinted from The Barrie Advance, Simcoe.com, Ontario, August 25, 2010.

Introducing Mike Yale

Editor's Note: Editor’s Note: Since this article, AEBC members Mike Yale and his partner Marcia have moved back to Huntsville, Ontario.

Mike Yale has dedicated his life to making things better for marginalized people. "I'm very political," he says. "If I have a defect, it's that I take things too seriously. I probably don't laugh as much as I ought."

Born in Hollywood, California, Yale was blinded in an explosion at age five. When he returned home after a year and 30 surgeries, the doctor told Yale's mother to encourage independence. "He said to let me make mistakes, even if I got hurt, and she did," he says. "My mother was a phenomenal woman."

In one of the first integrated school programs for blind children, Yale learned side by side with sighted classmates, excelling as a public speaker and member of the debating society. He also played classical piano before audiences of up to 5,000 people. In his teen years, his interest shifted from Beethoven to rock 'n’ roll, and today he has a 3,000-record collection to attest to his continuing love of music.

Yale spent the early 1960s at Berkley, majoring in journalism with minors in political science, history and comparative literature. He also became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements--and found true friendship. "The hippies were the first group who accepted me for who I was despite my blindness and the scars on my face," he says. "I consider myself a hippy to this day."

After college, Yale travelled in Russia and Europe, then decided to leave the United States permanently to protest against the Vietnam War. He moved to Toronto and began studying law at Osgoode Hall. Although he decided not to write the bar exam, Yale says he's used those studies in many ways.

Over the next 20 years, Yale had many different jobs ranging from dairy and pig farmer to radio show host to investigator for provincial and federal human rights commissions. He also wrote a book called No Dogs Allowed about his European travels. The sequel, Golden Reflections, was recently accepted by a small Toronto publisher.

In 1986, Yale and his then-partner bought the Huntsville Pet Shop and ran it for about three years. Ever since, work has been sporadic and typically required a commute to Toronto, like his five years at the provincial information and privacy commission.

"It's tough to get work," he says, noting that the unemployment rate among blind people is 75 percent.

Yale has been very involved in this community. He was Chair of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, served on the library board, and participated in the Visually Impaired Peer Support Group.

"Blindness is a total pain in the butt, but it's not that bad," he says. "Life doesn't end. There's always a way to accommodate your disability."

Since his ex-wife, Doreen, returned to England a year ago, Yale has been living alone with his guide dog, Narella. However, that changed earlier this week when he moved to Toronto to be with the new love of his life. "Marcia brings me such joy," he says.

There's another reason for Yale's move: It will make it easier to continue his work as Co-Chair of the Ontario Disability Support Program Action Coalition. "We are trying to get McGuinty's government to live up to the promise he made to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy," he says.

Yale explains that the provincial disability pension is less than $1,000 a month. "Nobody can live on that," he says. "Even if they raised it to $1,460 a month, it would only put recipients at the poverty line. There's so much wealth in this country, there's got to be a way to make sure everyone has enough to live reasonably."

After 22 years, Yale will miss Huntsville. "I know everyone here and have a whole network of friends," he says.

And he has a message for those staying behind: "Protect the lovely, quaint character of this town. Don't turn it into just another non-descript place on the highway, and don't let the politicians decide everything. Take an interest, get involved and protect what you've got."

Reprinted from the Huntsville Forester, August 27, 2008: www.huntsvilleforester.com

Automakers Reach Agreement on Sound for Electric Cars

Electric cars operate very quietly, which is one of the strong selling points to drivers who appreciate silence. Visually impaired pedestrians and other road occupants such as bicyclists, however, rely on the sound of combustion engines to negotiate safely.

As such, blind advocacy groups have been working with automakers for two years to reach a consensus on whether and how electric cars should be equipped with sounds. Recently, an agreement was reached.

Automakers will equip their electric cars with audible pedestrian alert signals that will not be driver activated. These chirping sounds would automatically be emitted when the car operates at low speeds to let pedestrians know that it is nearby.

When the first generation Volt goes on sale later this year, it will be equipped with a manually activated pedestrian alert; however, when the new agreement goes into effect, the sound will have to be automatic. Nissan has equipped the electric LEAF with an automated chirp.

"Bruup, bruup" is how Micky Bly, GM's executive director for hybrid electric vehicles and batteries imitates the sound that will be made by the Chevy Volt. The manually toggled stalk will sound "like the low tone of a horn, but non-startling."

Mark Perry, marketing director for Nissan, said the LEAFs' sound will be revealed to the public next week in Japan. Earlier reports indicated it would sound like the flying cars in the movie Blade Runner. "It's a little too early to disclose it, but when we do you'll understand the work that went into it from our audio guys," said Perry.

The often proposed idea of downloadable ring tones for electric cars seems unlikely. "We do hate the idea of ring tones," said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. "We think manufacturers should decide the sound or set of sounds, and drivers should not be able to alter them willy-nilly."

The electric car sound measure is incorporated in the Motor Safety Act of 2010, which was already proposed in congress and is expected to be ratified into law by the end of summer.

A group of auto trade groups in cooperation with the National Federation of the Blind sent a letter to Congress stating the new law would "help to ensure the safety of pedestrians, especially those who are blind, as an increasing number of hybrid and electric vehicles are sold."

The new legislation would require the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to begin drafting the requirements within 18 months and the rule would have to be finalized within three years.

David Strickland, who is the director of the NHTSA, said his agency is reviewing the agreement, which will also be extended to hybrids.

"Our analysis of limited data from 12 states shows that hybrid electric vehicles do have a significantly higher incidence rate of pedestrian crashes than internal combustion engines," he said.

Source (Detroit News) and (New York Times)

Reprinted from http://gm-volt.com, June 5, 2010.

Transit Responds to People's Needs

Jacques Pilon recalls a time when it was treacherous to get to and from classes at Mohawk College. "It used to be that you'd get off the bus and stand at the curb waiting for a break in traffic and then take your chances getting across Elgin Street," Pilon said. "There weren't any audio signals, lights or even a cross walk. I could be waiting there for 10 minutes before I knew it was safe.

"And even then, for someone like me, someone with no vision and poor hearing, it was a pretty dangerous thing to do. Elgin is a pretty busy street."

The introduction of hybrid cars, vehicles that are exceptionally quiet and environmentally friendly, has made crossing Elgin Street even more dangerous for Pilon and others with a hearing difficulty. "There's no way I'd ever do that crossing on my own now," he said.

Fortunately, he doesn't have to and neither does anyone else who might have difficulty crossing Elgin Street to get to classes.

Pilon, a member of the community advisory committee for disability issues, took his concerns about the Elgin Street crossing to the committee a few years ago. And after a little bit of work and after bringing the problem to the attention of city and college officials, significant changes were made.

There is now a bus stop on the main driveway into the campus and signs that mark the pedestrian crosswalk. Vehicles routinely stop for anyone trying to cross the driveway. Now buses can come right into the campus, making it easier for a lot of people, not just those with vision or hearing problems.

"It's better for everyone," Pilon said. "It's easier for moms who might be coming here with their young kids and it's easier for seniors.

"No one has to try to make that suicide run across Elgin Street anymore."

The change at Mohawk College is one of many the committee and Pilon have helped orchestrate over the years, as the city becomes more universally accessible. Another important change that Pilon helped bring about also focuses, to some extent, on public transit.

It occurred a few years ago when Pilon was living in west Brant. He relied on Brantford transit to get around town and, like many other people who are blind or visually impaired, Pilon had the bus route memorized. He knew when the bus would reach his stop and it was time for him to get off.

"One day, they changed the route and didn't tell me," Pilon recalled. "I maybe wasn't paying as close attention as I usually did and I got off at the wrong stop," he said. "For someone like me, that was a disaster because then I didn't know where I was."

He was only one street away but it was impossible for him to orient himself to his new surroundings without some help. Fortunately, a passerby gave him the assistance he needed and he arrived home safely that day.

Again, Pilon took the incident and concern to the committee and changes were made to make transit more user-friendly. Now buses are equipped with an automated voice that announces each stop.

"The drivers are great and always have been about announcing stops and helping me and others," Pilon said. "But I like the automated system because it helps the driver concentrate on driving and the system makes sure the stops are announced."

A member of the community advisory committee for 15 years, Pilon was honoured for his contributions to Brantford by his fellow committee members on the International Day for Persons with Disabilities last week. He has helped the community become more accessible for everyone, Dorothy DeVuono, the committee's vice-chairperson, said.

"He's a local expert, one of many that we have had on our committee," DeVuono said. "They bring their life experiences to us and help us figure out ways to improve accessibility for as many people as possible.

"When we talk about accessibility, we talk about making it universal. That is accessibility for all."

Asked what grade he would give the city with respect to accessibility, Pilon gave the city a B.

"This city has been looking at accessibility for a number of years now, going right back to when Chris Friel became mayor," Pilon said. "The city has a really good attitude towards accessibility and about getting things done.

"They listen to people with life experiences and work to make things better."

Reprinted from the Brantford Expositor, Ontario, December 8, 2009.

CNIB Cane Prices Cut After Protest: Charged $85 for Stick That Cost $36 Elsewhere

Protests by a blind Winnipeg man of price gouging have caused the CNIB to slash prices on its mobility canes across the country.

"We change prices all the time," said Geoff Fitzgibbon, CNIB's national director of business operations. "Prices go up and down all the time."

They went down this time, after Eric MacKinder realized he could get a graphite cane from the Winnipeg company that produces them at half the price the CNIB was charging. MacKinder, who originally wanted to get his graphite cane repaired, was told by the CNIB last week it couldn't be fixed. They said a new cane would cost him $85 plus taxes.

MacKinder called the St. Boniface-based Ambutech and learned they charge $36 for the same cane. He was outraged and called the Free Press to complain.

When the CNIB read MacKinder's story, they re-examined their pricing policy.

"The CNIB dropped the price of the canes to $45 plus tax," MacKinder said this week. "They should be commended for doing the right thing at last."

Ambutech was also able to repair his old cane for $12.

CNIB provides its clients with their first cane free.

Fitzgibbon said the price was set at $85 because the CNIB was initially ordering them from Ambutech "in onesies and twosies." As the graphite canes became more popular, they started buying them in bulk. The organization purchases the canes in Winnipeg, has them shipped to Toronto and then distributes them across the country. Part of the markup goes to cover shipping costs.

"It's ironic that this particular client happens to live in Winnipeg," said Fitzgibbon.

MacKinder says he feels vindicated, because local CNIB employees first claimed he was mistaken as to which type of cane he'd purchased.

Susan Dewalt, Winnipeg CNIB associate director of service, said the cane he bought was not graphite but a standard aluminum model they sell for $32. "They look almost identical," Susan Dewalt, the local CNIB's associate director of service, said last week. "The difference is the graphite (canes) are lighter and more durable."

But MacKinder bought a graphite cane and had an invoice to prove it. "I think it's horrible that they're marking up the canes more than 100 percent," said MacKinder, a former industrial chemist who is now living on disability.

Fitzgibbon said the CNIB would like to sell all their products more inexpensively, but what they make in profit goes directly into services for the visually impaired. The non-profit organization has approximately 120,000 blind clients registered with them.

Reprinted from the Winnipeg Free Press, June 25, 2009.

Inclusion More Than Mere Access

Editor's Note: What follows is adapted from a presentation delivered at the Collections, Connections and Communities Conference, Ottawa, October 2, 2009. <a href="http://www.blindcanadians.ca/publications/briefs/2009-inclusion-more-mere-access-collections-connections-and-communities-conferen">Full presentation available</a>

For many persons with disabilities, the prospect of visiting a museum, art gallery or heritage property can be rather intimidating. While today, more of these institutions aim to educate and entertain all members of society, too often access is limited for people with disabilities. Organizations need to adopt a more inclusive concept of accessibility--much more than just physical access to premises.

Canada's disabled community is comprised of people with visible and invisible disabilities alike, and accounts for about one in seven people in the country, a figure that is rising as our population ages. As such, true inclusion means understanding and valuing differences within Canada's entire population, and involves access to collections, educational programs, employment and volunteer opportunities, and to information about what's on display and what's happening in your facility.

The ability to gain access to your facility and move around easily inside, providing parking spaces close to the entrance, level door- and walkways, lower countertops, accessible washrooms, and conveniently located benches and elevators will all make your facility more accessible, as will adequate lighting, clear signage, and minimal surface glare.

How do you publicize your programs? Is it only by print flyers inside your facility's entrance? Do you provide brochures in multiple formats? Does your phone line have a recorded message, especially at night? Does your website conform to current W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards? Do its links include alternate tags so blind users will know what they contain? Are online videos and photos accompanied by text descriptions? Is there information on accessibility in all the forms of media you use?

New technologies are increasingly used to enhance the experience of all museum goers. Do you provide audio guides to your exhibits and if so, are all items described, or only some? Are visitors with disabilities able to use your interactive kiosks, or are they operated by inaccessible touch screens? Are you investigating other innovative technologies that can transmit information directly to a visitor's own mobile phone? Through inclusive design practices and compliance with accessibility standards and legislation, we can ensure museum technology affords engaging experiences to a greater number of users.

How are your staff and volunteers recruited? Do you rely solely on word of mouth or do you reach out to various groups in the community to ensure a more representative workforce and pool of volunteers? Do you provide training on diversity issues and have you developed a policy on providing needed accommodations?

Do you offer public lectures? Are they held in fully accessible rooms? Do your lecturers adequately describe the content of slides they use to support their presentations? Do you offer educational programs, where a patron can participate, and would a person with a disability be welcome in an art or sculpture class?

What about your collection? Is information about items on display presented only by notes in tiny print on a display case? Or do you offer replicas, audio guides, tactile drawings, or information sheets in multiple formats, including large print and braille? Are items displayed solely in glass cases, or is it possible to examine any by touch? When you are negotiating for visiting or special exhibitions, is access ever discussed with the artist or the facility providing the exhibition?

Gallery guides are important to the museum or art gallery experience for all visitors. How much verbal description or background information on an object or painting do you, or should you, offer visitors? Of course, tours for blind patrons will inevitably involve more time to provide verbal description of visual images. Individuals who lead such tours often say they gain a deeper appreciation of a piece, and even of the important role they themselves play.

What do your collections say about war, and how it adds significantly to the number of persons with disabilities worldwide? What other items do you have on display that pertains to disabled people's lives and history? At a time when museums are increasingly concerned with researching and presenting "hidden histories," why is disability rarely, if ever, exhibited?

Representation of people with disabilities in displays and exhibitions, when presented, often conforms to prevalent stereotypes found in film, literature, television and charity advertising. These stereotypes include people with disabilities as freaks, passive and dependent recipients of charity, Biblical miracle cures, and heroes who somehow transcend their disabilities. Depictions of people with disabilities in more realistic, everyday life have been practically non-existent.

The social model of disability provides a powerful lens to challenge and counteract such negative representations by highlighting the environmental, attitudinal and social barriers that people with various disabilities face in their struggle for equality, and for basic human rights.

Curators have been afraid of causing offence. How does one present difficult stories surrounding disability history--of asylums, industrial and war injury, holocaust, freak shows, and people's personal experiences of pain, discrimination and marginalization? How can material in collections be presented to help confront and alter outdated and stereotypical attitudes about disability?

I have travelled extensively, both in Canada and abroad, and have visited many museums, art galleries, castles, maritime facilities, nature reserves, pioneer villages and historic sites. I was particularly impressed by how many implements used to build this country could be touched at Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

At the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, I have had special tours, especially during the summertime when its staff is augmented by archaeology and anthropology students, and touched much from its extensive First Nations exhibition. The Royal Tyrrell Museum, meanwhile, in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada's only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of paleontology, houses one of the world's largest displays of dinosaurs. I suggest any visitor start in its Gift Shop, where you can examine dinosaurs in various forms, from stuffed animals to key chains, and gain a better appreciation of what you are about to see as you tour the collection itself.

Further afield, at Nelson Mandela's former house in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, South Africa, I was able to touch much of what was on display, including Tommy "Hit Man" Hearns' World Championship boxing belt, which was a great thrill for me. At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark, whose collection includes artifacts from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, the Ancient Mediterranean and Imperial Rome, I was asked to put on a pair of thin cotton gloves to prevent the oils from my hands from causing any damage to the irreplaceable pieces I was examining. Finally, at the Larco Museum in Lima, Peru, which boasts one of the world's largest collections of pre-Columbian art and pottery, I was able to touch replicas of vessels and take one home, a unique opportunity organized by Traveleyes International, a UK tour company that organizes tours for blind and sighted travellers.

While there are a variety of ways to convey information about items on display, for a blind visitor like me, there is simply no substitute for tactile access to regular collections--no substitute whatsoever! Replicas, raised-line drawings, special tours and other means of gaining access, however, can be somewhat helpful.

Although conservators cite possible damage to pieces as grounds for not offering tactile access, having them on display at all, exposed to light, air and flash photography, can pose a threat. We take these minor risks, however, because while preservation is a priority, these works are on display so we can all appreciate and enjoy them. What's more, the greater number of objects on display that can be touched, the less each individual piece will be handled.

If museums and art galleries in such diverse places as Peru, South Africa and Denmark, as well as the several in Canada mentioned above, can provide tactile access, then surely more museums and art galleries across Canada can make their collections more accessible to people with a variety of disabilities, who wish to learn more about the past and participate in present-day culture. I believe that "access for all" in experiencing the past, through all our senses, is our shared goal. We in the disabled community look forward to working collaboratively with staff in museums, historic houses and art galleries to make this goal a reality in every community across Canada.

The New Vision of Artificial Sight Technology

Millions of people in North America have vision (restrictions) glasses can't correct but that electronic devices might help. Vision aids that use electronics and software to enhance images have been cumbersome in the past, but they are getting easier to wear and more powerful.

An Ottawa start-up called eSight is one of the companies bringing computer-assisted vision technology to market. It hopes to complete a prototype this summer of a vision aid that looks like a pair of stylish sunglasses, with the addition of an electronic device that clips to your belt.

The glasses have a built-in miniature camera and image processing software running on the belt-mounted unit that will manipulate the camera's image in different ways to help people with various vision impairments see better. For instance, the software can enhance contrast, make the edges of objects more visible and even zoom in on a specific part of the field of vision. This helps patients with conditions like diabetic retinopathy that make vision blurry.

ESight expects a functional prototype of its vision aid to be ready this summer. (eSight) Ordinary optical lenses can enlarge an image and improve its contrast to a point, but that's the limit of the improvements they can offer, says the company's president, Rob Hilkes. With software, "we can quite dramatically play with brightness and contrast, so that the image that you see is quite different from what you would see with an optical lens," he says.

The eSight system can also perform special tricks aimed at solving other (sight limitations). For instance, advanced macular degeneration creates a blind spot right in the middle of the patient's field of vision. It's as if a cloud was hovering right in front of you, blocking your view of whatever you look at directly. People with this condition often learn to compensate by looking to one side of whatever they actually want to look at, so the object is outside the blind spot.

ESight is working on software--it won't be in this summer's prototype but should be in the final commercial product, Hilkes says--that maps the image captured by its camera to fit around the blind spot, so the words on a printed page would appear to curve around a central hole in the person's field of view.

Hilkes says eSight, which has backing from the government-run Ontario Centres of Excellence program, has already built a "proof of concept" of its vision aid. The bulky early version, built last year, "makes you look more like Darth Vader," he says, noting the prototype coming later this year will look more or less like regular sunglasses. The belt-mounted control box for the prototype will also be a bit bulkier than the final version, he says.

Hilkes says the company hopes to offer a "commercial prototype" in limited quantities by early next year and mass produce it by late 2010. Initially, he expects the cost to be in the $3,000 range.

He is also eyeing a large market of potential customers. Across North America, there are about 1,000 specialists working in around 500 clinics, whose primary practice is helping people with low vision, Hilkes says. "It's through those facilities that we believe the majority of our sales will occur," he says.

Most patients will have to pay for the devices themselves, though Hilkes is hopeful insurance plans and government programs may cover them in the future.

Other E-Vision Aids: Hilkes says the eSight unit is the first system of its kind--no existing device does quite the same things in as compact a package. One that comes close, though, is the SightMate from Vuzix Corp. in Rochester, N.Y., Vuzix' SightMate LV920 magnifies images up to 10 times. It also detects edges between objects and makes them clearer, it can freeze images, and its software can help compensate for colour blindness.

The current version of the SightMate, just introduced and available direct from the company at www.vuzix.com for $1,999 US, is a black visor that fits over the wearer's eyes, which has a camera in the middle. Gary Van Camp, vice-president of medical products for the company, says the next version will look more like designer sunglasses, with tiny cameras mounted in the frames at either side.

Vuzix also offers handheld add-ons for magnifying print, which can be used with the SightMate or an ordinary television set as the display.

“The number of people who could be helped by this is probably in the millions in North America alone.”--Dr. Rejean Munger, chief scientist for eSight

A veteran among head-mounted electronic magnifiers is the Jordy, from Enhanced Vision Inc. of Huntington Beach, Calif.

The Jordy can magnify objects up to 30 times, far more than is possible with a traditional magnifying glass, and provides a wider field of vision than any optical magnifier, says Michelle Williams, Enhanced Vision's director of sales and marketing. It can be strapped on the head or fitted into a desktop mount that increases the magnification and provides added light. But the head-mounted portion is noticeably bulkier than a pair of glasses, and it projects three or four centimetres out from the face.

Williams says the technology exists today to shrink the unit into something that looks like a pair of sunglasses, but the cost would be too high for most of the market. She predicts a glasses-like version within about five years. The current Jordy sells for $2,795 US.

Dr. Rejean Munger is chief scientist for eSight and a senior scientist at the University of Ottawa Eye Institute at the Ottawa Hospital. He says making electronic vision aids lighter and less obtrusive will mean more people will wear them and for longer periods.

"A lot of these people don't want to appear like they're wearing a space helmet when they're in public," he says, adding many find the bulkier units too heavy to wear for more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time.

Devices like these can't help everyone with vision (restrictions), Dr. Munger warns--they will do nothing for people who are entirely blind, and those with limited vision shouldn't expect to start driving or playing soccer. But, he says, "The number of people who could be helped by this is probably in the millions in North America alone."

Reprinted from CBC News, August 13, 2009.

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: http://news.therecord.com

Photo: GPS Tactile Sight Belt

'Green' Cars Called Threat to Blind Pedestrians

Setting out from their Buchanan Crescent townhouse for a morning jaunt, Bob Brown and his guide dog, Boone, set a good pace. It's more like a power walk than a stroll and they work as a team, moving easily around their neighbourhood.

"Brantford's pretty good, pretty accessible," the 33-year-old visually impaired man said. "We can get up to Williams for coffee if we want, and I can go up to the (Lynden Park) Mall for groceries and back no problem.

"Sometimes I use public transit or the heel-toe express. It depends on the weather."

He enjoys his independence and mobility. But he worries they will be threatened by the growing popularity of hybrid vehicles, which run on gasoline and a rechargeable battery. In battery mode, they are quiet.

Hybrids may be good for the environment, but they are not so good for the blind and visually impaired, said Brown. "When I'm walking on a sidewalk, I depend on my guide dog and my ability to hear traffic," he said. "If I can't hear a car coming, if it's backing out of a driveway, I won't hear it until it's too late.

"I already know what it's like to get hit by a car, and I don't want to ever have that feeling again."

He can't go into details about his accident, which happened almost two years ago. But the experience of being hurt and losing his guide dog is enough to compel him to sound the alarm over hybrid vehicles. He wants the automakers to come up with a way of making the vehicles loud enough so they can be heard by all pedestrians. And if the car companies won't do it voluntarily, Brown said he thinks the government should force this issue through legislation.

"There is some work going on in the United States on this, and I think a couple of states are in the process of trying to come up with some regulations, some standards.

"I don't know if there is much happening here in Canada. I think they're taking a kind of a wait-and-see approach."

Brown has been visually impaired since he was about seven. His impairment was caused by retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disorder of the retina that, over time, causes severe vision loss.

Brown isn't the only one raising concerns about hybrid vehicles. John Rae, the first vice-president of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, called hybrid vehicles a “major” safety concern for all pedestrians, not just blind and visually impaired people. Joggers and walkers wearing headphones are all vulnerable because of the quietness of hybrid vehicles. "We recognize the importance of saving the environment," Rae said. "But we don't see this as an either-or issue.

"We think vehicles can be good for the environment, as well as safe."

He's calling on the various levels of government to force the auto industry to come up with a way of making the vehicles safe enough for pedestrians. Now, with the auto industry looking for taxpayer bailouts to keep it afloat, is the perfect time for the government to get car makers to address the issue. "We'd like them (the automakers) to do it voluntarily, but if they don't, we think the government should step in and force them," Rae said. "So far, we haven't received much of a response from the auto industry."

Toyota is one of the industry leaders in developing hybrid vehicles and is the manufacturer of the Toyota Prius, one of the most popular and recognizable of hybrid vehicles. Rae thinks Toyota is a company that could set the standard for other companies to follow.

Nicole Grant, of Toyota Canada's public relations office, said Toyota is always looking for ways to improve public safety, as well as improvements to sustainable mobility. Toyota seeks to maintain a balance between those concerns, as well as other societal issues, such as noise pollution and environmental concerns. "We're always working towards that balance, and public safety is at the top of our list of concerns," she said.

Reprinted from the Brantford Expositor, November 26, 2008.

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