Vi­sion­ary in­ven­tor helps blind

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS - By KARINA ABADIA

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.

The

head­set

emits

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.

Photo: KARINA ABADIA

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.

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