Haptic assistive technology

Steven Hipwell, principal project manager at Birmingham City University guest blogs for Inspect-a-Gadget

Every year Vision 2020 hosts World Sight Day, bringing awareness to the plight of the 285 million blind and visually impaired people around the world. About 90% of those people live in developing countries; so it is fitting that some of the technology being created to help them is coming out of those same countries. Anirudh Sharma from Indian company Ducere is a prime example of such social-entrepreneurialism with his revolutionary haptic shoe named “Le Chal“.

Anirudh’s main area of interest is that of human-computer interaction. He has turned that interest into a product called “Le Chal”; a shoe fitted with sensors and using blue-tooth and GPS technologies. “Le Chal”, in conjunction with a smart-phone enables the wearer to walk safely without the aid of a white-stick. Anirudh’s company “Ducere”, meaning to lead in Latin, is shaping technology to meet the needs and constraints of his products’ users.

In India for most people a guide-dog is unaffordable. Voice feedback devices are also not ideal as they interfere with the other primary sense of location: hearing. 

The haptic “Le Chal” shoe with its built-in Arduino-board and vibrating sensors is also proximity aware up to three metres; it is therefore able to alert the wearer to upcoming obstacles. Anirudh with “Le Chal” was winner of MIT  India’s TR35 Technology Review 2012 innovator of the year award.

In the spirit of the late great Indian management consultant C.K.Prahalad, Anirudh has seen an opportunity in a low-income market for a product that delivers a better user-experience at an affordable price. “Le Chal” has been specifically developed for the market of the poor tapping into what C.K coined the “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid”. Anirudh is inverting what might traditionally be seen as market constraints and innovating to transform them into norms.

As haptic technologies develop and become cheaper and more prevalent the possibilities for incorporation into products will naturally increase. For those users whose primary sense is touch this will be extremely significant. But for everyone; if a user can “feel” the display of a device the applications and possibilities for new ways of “using” take us to another level of enhanced multi-modal experience.

The new technologies will continue to develop; but its people like Anirudh that have the vision to see things differently by inverting and mixing make ground-breaking products that enhance peoples’ lives. In developing countries like India where avoidable blindness is still a huge problem new technology can mean more than a better user experience -it can be the key to independence and dignity. Please see http://www.aravind.org/.

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