Smart cane can find its own way

This update of the white cane was developed by Stanford researchers to improve mobility for people who are blind or have vision impairment
This new robotic smart cane could become a revolution tool. (Stanford University)

The white cane is a standard tool for those who are blind or have vision impairment. It serves two functions.

First, it acts as a simple tool to allow its user to 'feel' obstacles or changes in terrain in front of them as they walk. Second, its white colour alerts others to the user's vision disability. (In fact, it is a law in many places that such a cane must be white and only be used by people who are blind or have vision impairment.)

The white cane is popular because it is cheap and works well. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be improved. That was the mission of a new Ph.D. study at Stanford University in California. Here, the researchers aimed to use new technology to make a self-navigating smart cane. And they wanted to do it in a way that would still be affordable.

Let's see how they did!

Self-driving tech in action

The wheel is a key to this smart cane's success. (Stanford University)

Once just science fiction, self-driving cars are very much real these days. To build their smart cane, students Patrick Slade and Arjun Tambe—along with supervising professor Mykel Kochenderfer—took the same tech that is used in self-driving cars and applied it to their device.

This means using LIDAR (a laser scanning technology), a camera, and a GPS to allow the cane to both understand where it is and to identify oncoming objects and obstacles. So the smart cane can see where it is and what is ahead. But how does it let its user know?

This is our favourite part! At the tip of the cane is a small wheel with rubber feet. Basically, it can either stay motionless, or spin to the left or right. As the cane senses an obstacle, it spins the wheel in a direction to avoid it—when this happens, the user will feel a gentle tug on the cane in that same direction.

So simple, but so brilliant!

Build it at home

Perhaps the best part of this cane is that it's not too expensive. Other smart canes do exist, but they cost thousands of dollars. This cane runs on open source (free downloadable) software, and can be built at home with a few easily found items and tools. Overall, building one from scratch costs about $510 CDN ($400 US).

Considering how much this innovation could improve the mobility of people who are blind or have vision impairment, that is a pretty reasonable amount. So far, tests have shown that the cane is a success. We're excited to see how it may become a new standard tool used around the world.

To see the smart cane in action—as well as the inventor explain their device—watch the video below.

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