Visionary inventor helps blind
COULD you find your way in the world without your sight?
Using a cane or a guide dog helps but soon there may be another way.
University of Auckland mechanical engineering senior lecturer Claire Davies is working on an ultrasound device that will enable blind people to navigate using echolocation.
She has been presented with a $5000 AdviceFirst Scholarship Award to test out the third prototype.
Dr Davies is also a finalist in the AMP Do Your Thing National Scholarship competition. Funding recipients will be announced on November 20.
Getting closer to the finished product is an exciting prospect for Dr Davies, who started working on the device in 2004 for her doctoral thesis.
It is called The AUDEO, which stands for audification of ultrasound for the detection of environmental obstacles.
an ultrasound frequency that changes in pitch when the user gets closer to solid stationary items or moving objects.
It is designed to be used in conjunction with a cane and enables people to detect obstacles above waist height.
Dr Davis, 39, got the idea after observing the habits of a family friend who was told he’d never be able to live an independent life because he couldn’t master the use of a guide dog.
But her friend learned to echolocate and was able to detect hazards.
‘‘I have walked through a construction site with him and he was able to detect drop-offs just by clicking his tongue,’’ she says.
She looked into existing devices and found a gap in the market for something that doesn’t overload people with information.
‘‘There has been uptake of other devices but the problem is they take hours of training. This one has been designed to be able to just pick up and use.’’
Her husband Shane Pinder, who is head of engineering at Manukau Institute of Technology, helped her develop the original prototype.
From there they tested the device on blindfolded people. They looked at going through apertures, judging distances and localising specific sounds.
Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind environmental awareness adviser Chris Orr tried out the device in Auckland Domain this week.
It was early days but the good thing about the device is its simplicity, he says.
‘‘Often you can get too much information out of the environment. When someone is driving they are constantly making judgement calls, a blind traveller does the same thing but uses different sources.
‘‘A building you can ‘ hear’ because it’s solid but you can’t hear things like scaffolding, it’s too narrow,’’ he says.
‘‘A device like this enhances the potential of the blind traveller to be more independent and gives them more information to be able to make good decisions.’’
Dr Davies and Mr Pinder will be working on finetuning the miniature version of the device over the summer and will be conducting additional testing.
Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind will be celebrating Blind Week from October 29 to November 4. Look out for the collectors on street corners next Friday and Saturday.
Test run: Chris Orr tries out the audio device mechanical engineering senior lecturer Claire Davies has designed to help blind people navigate.
Go to aucklandcityharbour news.co.nz to watch a video of Chris Orr using the device with commentary from Claire Davies.