24 January 2014

Africans Design Audible Guides for Blind People

Cairo/London — Two African inventors have independently produced devices designed to help blind people navigate. One of the devices could cost just US$150, raising the prospect of such technologies becoming a realistic option for blind people from poor backgrounds.

The first device, called GuideMe, was invented by Algerian Badreddine Zebbiche. The design, which is yet to be fully developed into a working product, uses three-dimensional sensors fitted to each side of the wearer's shoes to detect obstacles. When this happens, the system sends a warning to a smartphone application, which gives the user instructions such as 'turn left' (see video below).

Last October, Zebbiche was a joint winner of the 2013 Technology Idea competition to encourage start-ups that is run by partnership the Global Innovation through Science & Technology (GIST) initiative.

The initiative aims to seek out new entrepreneurs in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Turkey and support them with training, mentoring, networking and funding.

Ovidiu Bujorean, who manages the GIST initiative, says Zebbiche's designs "really tried to solve a real problem and that is basically a key criteria for our competition".

"We do a lot of outreach for competitions. We reach a lot of people around the world and allow them to learn about the opportunity to participate," he says.

Bujorean recognises that entrepreneurs and academics from richer nations are already developing devices similar to GuideMe. But he adds: "It's good when there are a few of them, because not all of them will be really successful. It's survival of the fittest."

Zebbiche agrees: "I believe that, in the field of entrepreneurship, similar products from different manufacturers means competition."

Nigerian rival

Zebbiche has competitors in the developing world too. A similar device, termed a 'wearable obstacle detection system', emerged from labs in Nigeria last year.

Adebimpe Obembe, a medical rehabilitation researcher at Obafemi Awolowo University, was among the authors of a paper describing the device in the journal Technology and Disability last August.

He tells SciDev.Net: "This is the first of its kind in Nigeria and, to the best of our knowledge, Africa."

The system uses ultrasound to detect obstacles on the floor and then sends a radio signal to a headpiece. This has an earpiece to provide feedback that helps users gauge their distance from obstacles: the closer the obstacle, the louder the sound.

"The advantage of our system is its small size, low cost and [lack of] wearable constraints," says Obembe, adding that, until now, most similar devices that have been developed had been expensive, complicated and not wearable.

Usability tests of the system showed that the beeping pattern allowed users to avoid collision by navigating around obstacles with minimal training, according to the paper.

But the device was unable to detect moving obstacles and its range is just four metres. This "must be extended to enable the user to move freely in the outdoor environment", according to B. Amutha, a professor of computer science and engineering at SRM University in India.

Philippe Truillet, who works on human-computer interaction at the University of Toulouse, France, agrees that Obembe's system "seems to be a good baseline for future work". He notes too that it would add to, rather than replace, blind people's navigational tools. "This is not really intended to replace the guide dog," he says.

Obembe says that the expected cost of the initial design is about US$150. "We are still working on it to make it more compact," he says.

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