For blind, wrist band pro­vides a ‘sixth sense’

Sonar-like de­vice de­signed to per­ceive sur­round­ing ob­jects

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - HEALTH | SCIENCE - By Peter Hol­ley

Watch­ing Fer­nando Al­ber­to­rio stroll down a crowded side­walk into down­town Washington dur­ing a re­cent lunch hour, ca­su­ally sidestep­ping pedes­tri­ans run­ning er­rands and crowd­ing around food trucks, you’d have no idea he is legally blind.

Al­ber­to­rio eas­ily blends into the flow of hu­man traf­fic swirling around him, which is even more re­mark­able con­sid­er­ing that he is do­ing so largely with­out the use of his lim­ited vi­sion.

His se­cret: a wrist band called Sunu that emits a high-fre­quency sound wave that bounces off ob­jects as far as 14 feet in front of him be­fore reg­is­ter­ing as a gen­tle, puls­ing vi­bra­tion on his arm.

The closer the ob­ject is — whether it’s a wall, trash can or per­son — the more fre­quent the pulses be­come, al­low­ing Al­ber­to­rio to cre­ate a men­tal map of the world around him us­ing echolo­ca­tion. He com­pares the de­vice to sonar be­ing used in ve­hi­cles to sense nearby ob­jects and avoid crashes.

Al­ber­to­rio, who grew up in Puerto Rico, is part of a team of en­trepreneurs from Mex­ico who built Sunu from scratch and are hop­ing their in­ven­tion changes the way vis­ually im­paired peo­ple get around.

“One of my friends calls the de­vice his ‘sixth sense,’ ” Al­ber­to­rio said, not­ing that peo­ple with vi­sion loss are some­times afraid of go­ing out­side. “It en­hances my aware­ness of my per­sonal space and keeps me safe when I’m out in my neigh­bor­hood.”

For the vis­ually im­paired, smart­phone apps can help them hail a ride, link to real-time maps and get to the near­est con­ve­nience stores. But there is no app for avoid­ing a tree branch ob­struct­ing a side­walk after a storm or walk­ing through a rush-hour crowd, not to men­tion find­ing an of­fice in an un­fa­mil­iar build­ing or the clos­est restau­rant in a new neigh­bor­hood. Try­ing to be dis­creet

It was those kind of chal­lenges, which can fill an or­di­nary day with phys­i­cal haz­ards and ex­treme com­pli­ca­tions, that led Al­ber­to­rio to de­velop Sunu.

“This is a way of get­ting peo­ple out­side and do­ing things while be­ing dis­creet,” he added. “Folks want to be able to go out­side, be ac­tive, blend in and be part of their com­mu­nity.”

The de­vice’s set­tings, in­clud­ing range and sen­si­tiv­ity, can be cus­tom­ized us­ing the com­pany’s app.

The Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind es­ti­mates that more than 7 mil­lion peo­ple live with visual dis­abil­ity in the United States. Some ex­perts ex­pect that num­ber to in­crease sharply in the com­ing decades as baby boomers reach old age and are af­flicted by glau­coma and other eye dis­eases. The vis­ually im­paired still rely largely on See­ing Eye dogs and the white cane — a tool that is nearly 100 years old and doesn’t pro­tect users above their knees.

The Sunu band isn’t the first de­vice to har­ness the power of echolo­ca­tion. In­ven­tors have cre­ated vi­brat­ing cloth­ing that uses echolo­ca­tion and a vi­brat­ing clip that uses ul­tra­sound to help vis­ually im­paired peo­ple avoid ob­sta­cles above their lower body

And at least one man, known

“If you’re walk­ing down the side­walk and you’re an­tic­i­pat­ing a cor­ner, it’s hard to beat a guide dog that knows you and can help you travel long dis­tances. But if you drop your wal­let on the floor, you might pre­fer us­ing Sunu over us­ing a cane, which might be a clunkier so­lu­tion for find­ing a small ob­ject.” Dave Power, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Perkins School for the Blind

as “the real life bat­man,” trains vis­ually im­paired peo­ple to cre­ate a rudi­men­tary form of echolo­ca­tion by click­ing his tongue against the roof of his mouth — a tac­tic he learned on his own. By click­ing, Daniel Kish, who lost both eyes to can­cer as a tod­dler, can even ride a bike on city streets.

The chal­lenge for engi­neers, Al­ber­to­rio said, is cre­at­ing tech­nol­ogy that isn’t ob­tru­sive, dis­tract­ing the user from the sen­sa­tions and sounds vis­ually im­paired peo­ple rely upon. A vi­brat­ing cane might help a user de­tect large ob­sta­cles ahead of them, for ex­am­ple, but it can also numb the del­i­cate sen­sa­tions that al­low some­one’s fin­ger­tips to per­ceive sub­tle changes on the ground be­low, Al­ber­to­rio said. No sin­gle so­lu­tion

Be­cause of the va­ri­ety of nav­i­ga­tional chal­lenges vis­ually im­paired peo­ple face, there is no sin­gle so­lu­tion for get­ting around, ex­perts say. Hav­ing ac­cess to a port­fo­lio of com­ple­men­tary nav­i­ga­tional tools is of­ten ideal, ac­cord­ing to Dave Power, the pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Perkins School for the Blind, the na­tion’s first school for the blind.

“If you’re walk­ing down the side­walk and you’re an­tic­i­pat­ing a cor­ner, it’s hard to beat a guide dog that knows you and can help you travel long dis­tances,” he said. “But if you drop your wal­let on the floor, you might pre­fer us­ing Sunu over us­ing a cane, which might be a clunkier so­lu­tion for find­ing a small ob­ject.”

Al­ber­to­rio said he’d like to link in­no­va­tions like Sunu with Google Maps or Face­book, so a user could point a de­vice in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions to get up-to­date in­for­ma­tion about com­pli­cated ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments such as business ar­eas, parks, of­fices or trans­porta­tion lo­ca­tions. Such a de­vice would al­low vis­ually im­paired peo­ple to roam freely in­stead of be­ing teth­ered to their rou­tine routes, Al­ber­to­rio said.

“What we’re re­ally cre­at­ing is tech­nol­ogy that aug­ments hu­man aware­ness and this is just the be­gin­ning,” he said.

Zacharias Abubeker / AFP / Getty Im­ages

The vis­ually im­paired largely rely on the white cane, along with guide dogs. How­ever, the cane doesn’t pro­tect users above their knees, some­thing the Sunu wrist band may be able to do.

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