Glasses That Alert Travelers to Objects Through Vibration? An Evaluation of iGlasses by RNIB and AmbuTech
Technology is increasingly trending toward simplicity and integration with our daily activities. This seems to also hold true for people who are blind or visually impaired. If you want to look up the weather forecast for the next few days, locate a specific address, find out if a financial transaction occurred, or scope out the nearest restaurant, this can all be done using a smartphone. For several reasons, including improved industry standards, an ever-expanding digital age, and stronger advocacy on behalf of consumers, people who are blind or visually impaired have come to expect a greater level of performance and integration with access devices these days. Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in the UK and AmbuTech of Canada have partnered to create a pair of sunglasses called iGlasses that detect nearby objects and alert travelers through vibration. This product is the type of integrated and multipurpose design consumers are increasingly coming to expect, but are these iGlasses all that they're cracked up to be? This product evaluation will explore the pros and cons of this electronic mobility aid to help you better determine whether or not this product is right for you.
Caption: Photo of iGlasses
iGlasses weigh less than three ounces, are black in color, and roughly resemble a pair of NoIR wrap around sun filters. They come with a soft protective pouch, and you have the option of charging the unit's built-in lithium-ion battery using an AC charger or the USB connection included with the device. The glasses come with a one-page, double-sided User Manual. You are given the option of clear lenses or tinted dark amber lenses, both of which provide UV400 protection. A small, inconspicuous thumbwheel on the underside of the right arm of the frame allows you to adjust the level of intensity of the vibrational signal the glasses emit when detecting objects. The small, rubberized power button is located on the outside of the right arm, and the glasses are activated by pressing and holding this button for one second. Pressing and holding the button for an additional second will turn the unit off.
The manual that comes with the iGlasses effectively describes the basic operation and features of the device. The instructions are laid out in 14- and 16-point font along with diagrams. In light of this product being marketed as a mobility aid for people with little or no vision, providing a larger size font, such as 22- and/or 26-point, and including the manual in electronic format would provide a greater level of accessibility.
Understanding How iGlasses Detect Objects
iGlasses are equipped with ultrasonic sensors located on the front of the frame, and when an object is detected, the iGlasses emit a pulsating vibration. The frequency of the vibration (time between each vibrational pulse) depends on two factors: the distance of an object and the size of its surface area. As you move closer to an object, the frequency of the vibrations increases. However, smaller objects (or objects that have less surface area) are not detected at the same distance as larger objects. For instance, during testing the iGlasses were able to detect a large tree at 122 inches (slightly more than 10 feet) whereas a wire fence was only detected at about five feet away. Not knowing the size of an object's surface area that the iGlasses are detecting can, therefore, make it difficult to determine how far away it is. The available thumbwheel control on the iGlasses lets you control the level of intensity of the vibrational signal when detecting objects, but it has no impact on the vibrational frequency of the iGlasses for object detection.
iGlasses are designed to detect objects in your line of travel that are at waist level and higher (objects that are not cane detectable). The iGlasses are sometimes helpful with detecting the distance of an object although, as mentioned earlier, the point at which an object is detected can also depend on its surface area. iGlasses are not capable of indicating where in the environment the object being detected is through vibration alone, whether it's overhead, on either side of you, or at waist level. Scanning the environment by moving your head from side to side and up and down may help to isolate the location of an object through the vibrational output of the iGlasses. The manual states, "iGlasses are a secondary mobility device and must not be used on their own without another primary device such as a long cane, mobility cane, or guide dog." This is sound advice since iGlasses are a head-mounted device, and using them to scan objects through head movement may negatively impact your ability to maintain a straight line of travel and orientation.
Putting iGlasses to The Test
iGlasses were put through its paces in a number of environments, including indoor settings, residential areas, business districts, parks, and trails. In indoor environments, including open hallways and a private residence, iGlasses did not prove to be very effective at accurately detecting objects within the line of travel. Its ultrasonic sensors seemed to have difficulties making sense of the environment, presumably due to the large surface areas in indoor environments. This caused a number of false alarms by indicating through its vibrations that an object was within close proximity when it was not.
Conversely, the iGlasses performed significantly better in open outdoor settings. In a park setting, the iGlasses were able to easily detect low-lying limbs and branches at head level, which could otherwise be a hazard if you couldn't see them. In more heavily wooded trails, the iGlasses were also able to effectively detect limbs and branches. The iGlasses would vibrate when passing close to and under some smaller branches that were located up to a foot above head level, which could be considered a false alarm since those branches were not directly in the line of travel and were, therefore, not a traveling hazard.
Passing closely by lampposts, even when they were out of the direct line of travel, also caused the iGlasses to vibrate. However, the vibration was brief, and the frequency was low. This was an interesting occurrence in light of the iGlasses not emitting any vibration when walking parallel and closely to buildings. The iGlasses did not vibrate when approaching objects that were cane detectable, such as recycle bins and trash cans. In these instances, the iGlasses effectively ignored these cane detectable objects, which it is designed to do.
iGlasses were put to the test on several street signs that were not cane detectable with mixed reviews. A "Dead End" street sign at head level measuring approximately three feet wide and two feet high was not consistently detected with the iGlasses unless it was approached head-on. A diamond-shaped "Road Work Ahead" sign measuring four feet across and approximately four feet in height at its widest point was also not detected with the iGlasses unless the sign was located in the immediate walking path. The sharp edges of this sign's irregular diamond shape were clearly a challenge for iGlasses and proved to be a serious hazard at waist level.
Other larger, square and rectangular-shaped signs, such as business signs in front of buildings, were easily detected by the iGlasses. Cane detectable sandwich signs located in front of businesses were bypassed by the iGlasses as they should be.
Because of their angle, guy wires, also known as support cables for poles, can often be travel hazards that are not cane detectable. iGlasses were able to effectively detect guy wires that have the protective plastic tubing around them but unable to consistently detect guy wires without this plastic tubing. Guy wires measure less than half an inch in diameter without the additional tubing and proved to be too thin for the ultrasonic technology of the iGlasses to effectively detect.
As with indoor environments, when iGlasses are used in some outdoor environments containing large surface areas that are not necessarily in the direct line of travel, they can give out false alarms. For instance, in one store front that had an overhang, some tables and chairs on one side, and brick walls about eight feet apart, the iGlasses sent out false alarms and were unable to provide accurate feedback of cane detectable objects.
Determining Battery Level
It takes approximately three hours for the built-in battery of the iGlasses to fully charge. According to EnableMart, one of the U.S. distributors of the device, a single charge lasts for approximately one week. This is only an estimate and is dependent on how frequently the unit is used. After the iGlasses are turned on, a series of one to four beeps indicate the level of battery charge with four beeps indicating a full charge and one beep indicating a 25 percent charge. A series of 10 beeps indicates that the battery level is too low for the unit to effectively operate. This is an important feature since it allows you to quickly determine whether or not to charge the unit.
Comfort of iGlasses
At less than three ounces, iGlasses are surprisingly lightweight considering the technology built into them. The arms of the iGlasses are also expandable by up to an inch, which allows you to adjust them to your particular head size. This adds to the overall comfort of the iGlasses since it reduces strain on the bridge of the nose and ears. The power button positioned on the outside arm of the unit is easy to access. The control used to increase and decrease the intensity level of the vibrations located on the underside of the right arm may be a little more challenging for some people to adjust, and for safety reasons as well as ease of adjustment, this is best done in a stationary position.
The basic operation of the iGlasses is fairly straightforward, including the ability to charge the unit, understand the auditory battery indicator, and turn the unit on and off. What becomes more challenging is recognizing environmental traveling hazards by simply relying on the vibrational frequency of the iGlasses. Good orientation and mobility skills, effective deductive reasoning, and planning routes in advance are all crucial components to being a safe traveler. Learning to understand the vibrational frequency of larger objects in your path is easy since the frequency increases as you approach the object and decreases as you move further away from it. Smaller objects and/or objects with a smaller surface area are more of a challenge to detect using iGlasses, and additional training and experience will not necessarily equate to better object detection with the iGlasses since the unit itself has some limitations when detecting objects.
The Bottom Line
At $143.95, the iGlasses may prove to be a useful and affordable mobility aid for some people, especially in novel outdoor environments. In specific environments, there may be a series of false alarms of object detection since the iGlasses sometimes pick up objects that are slightly outside the range of your walking path but may still be cane detectable. iGlasses are also unable to pick up every non-cane detectable object, such as smaller-sized objects with very little surface area, and irregular shaped signage that protrudes at waist or chest level.
However, this doesn't detract from the fact that iGlasses may be an especially useful mobility aid in many situations. If you have maintained the upper-protective technique with your arm stretched across your body for any extended period of time, you'll know how tiring this can be. iGlasses also double as a durable pair of sunglasses that provide UV protection and physical protection from foreign objects that could enter your eyes. The low cost of the iGlasses and their multipurpose use make them a relevant and affordable option in the area of mobility aids.
Available From: EnableMart
Address: 865 Muirfield Drive
Hanover Park, IL 60133
Phone: (888) 640-1999.
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