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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Student Designing SmartCane at JHU

Hello everyone,

I am a senior biomedical engineering student at Johns Hopkins University. My friend and I recently entered and won a competition to design an electronic cane for the blind and visually impaired.

We are now coming up with a new design, but could really use some input from potential users. Would anyone be interested in helping us improve the cane by offering their opinions?

Some of the questions we have include:

The AFB statistics page states that there are approximately 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States, but only 109,000 use canes. Is there anything about the cane itself that people don't like?

Would a handheld (caneless) range finder be a good idea or do people like the tactile sensation of a real cane?

We also have some more specific questions about how it should work.

We appreciate any input. We apologize if this is not the correct forum to post this kind of request (in that case, we ask the moderator to please remove this post).

There are currently 7 replies

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Re:Student Designing SmartCane at JHU

The ADAAG and Int'l Bldg Code/ANSI A117.1 concept of a "detectable warning" could be coordinated with an electronic "cane" to signal with cane vibration when an emitter is in range that signals hazardous conditions. We have tactile door levers that do this already. This would be a possible upgrade with the advent of an electronic cane.

Using RFID and the power source as part of the cane, embedded detectable warnings throughout our built environment could be helpful to everyone with visual impairment at any level and would be discreet.

The ADAAG would launch the demand curve of this concept by requiring RFID chip embedment as part of all required detectable warnings.

Re:Student Designing SmartCane at JHU

My name is Erin MacCord and I am the Development OFficer for the New Jersey State Library for the Blind and Handicapped.

Thank you for the work you are doing to support the visually impaire. I applaud you!

I would like to talk to you further regarding your work, and possibly attend our annual Fall Festival on October 3rd, 2009 to demonstrate your technological advances of the white cane.

Please call me so we can discuss this further at 609-530-6131

Re:Student Designing SmartCane at JHU

I don't think it's really an issue of not wanting to hit others with your cane. As I travel with other blind people, not only have I been hit by canes, but I've hit other people with canes. Unless the person using the cane is swinging wildly, it's not very painful at all- no different than being bumped into with a shoulder, except it's your ankle that's bumped. The same applies with glass objects- unless you're swinging VERY hard, you're not likely to do any damage. A person especially concerned about hitting/knocking over things could easily slide their cane on the floor, thus preventing the solid "hit" of impact on whatever they're trying to avoid. Unless you're walking through a fragile glass maze, you don't really need to do this.

Reasons why legally blind people REALLY don't use canes:

First: many (if not most) people who are "just barely" legally blind (in the range of 20/200-20/400) have enough travel vision that they feel they can safely travel without a cane. While this may just be trying to fool yourself with some conditions, others, like macular degeneration, can lead to legal blindness FAR before the person's ability to travel is even mildly affected. The person wouldn't be able to read street signs without "looking over" them, but they would see the sidewalk, curb cuts, and other such hazards fine.

Second, and most importantly: a cane is, quite largely, public admission of your blindness. For most blind people, this is painful and uncomfortable and forces you to get over a whole lot of denial you've probaby been living with for years. Or, for a newly blind person, it requires admission of the fact that you're not just "having problems seeing." Carrying a cane, while useful, will without doubt force you to face the fact that society at large isn't ready to accept with you and doesn't really know how to deal with you- if you carry a cane, you WILL be preceived as a completely blind person, and as an incompetent person, even if the two in no way relate and both can be inaccurate.

The moral of my long winded post? I applaud your efforts in making it easier for blind people to safely travel, but at the same time, I think creating a product like that is not only quite useless in the long run of things, but also possibly harmful as it gives blind people an "out" from the societal stigma of being a "cripple."

Re:Student Designing SmartCane at JHU

The reason we felt there might be a need for an alternative to the standard cane is because only 10% of those who are legally blind use canes.

We aren't sure why so few use canes and are definitely interested in the answer to that question. One of our theories was that perhaps blind canes require too much poking (poking a glass vase or a person would be bad). So we thought that a "pokeless cane" might be helpful.

Given the unpopularity of standard canes, we feel that there must be a better alternative out there.

Re:Student Designing SmartCane at JHU

I fail to see the functional purpose of a smart cane, to be honest. A cane is just a stick. You wave it, you hit things, you move. Electronic canes have come in and out of popularity... but at the end of the day, why on earth do we need them?

Re:Student Designing SmartCane at JHU

Thanks for your help,

For this design, we were thinking of mapping the floor distance (distance from the handheld sensor to the nearest obstacle) to the position of a slider that moves back and forth under the middle finger.

So let's say we choose a range of 6 feet for the device and a slider range of 6 cm. If an object is at 3 feet (the middle of the device's range), the slider will move to 3 cm (the middle of its range). That way sudden changes will be easily detectable, because the body is quite good at noticing changes. The fit of the device will be such that the hand always grabs the device at the same position, so the user can become familiar with the finger sensation correlating to a certain distance.

The biggest issue seems to be small obstacles, like a curb, which is only 6 inches high and would correlate to a slider motion of about 0.5 cm. Since the user's hand could be moving (causing the slider to react needlessly) during walking, the user might ignore small changes in the slider position, thinking they are artifacts. The user then misses the warning about the curb.

We expect this "curb" problem to exist with any handheld device, but we think its important that the device be handheld, which seems to be more convenient than a cane.

We've also considered sound feedback, but decided that the constant sound (such as changing frequencies depending on obstacle distance) would just irritate the user. Also it would still have the curb problem.

We'd love to learn from your experience both in haptic interfaces and as a cane user.

I have also sent this message to your email account in case you check that more frequently.

Re:Student Designing SmartCane at JHU


I've been interested in haptic interfaces for quite some time now. I'm also a cane user, although i do have some residual vision. I've mainly studied haptic interfaces in the context of computer use, and I've experimented with a number of devices to extend the range of my cane, like dog clickers and such. Drop me a line if i can be of assistance. (menachem12[at]

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