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DO WE NEED A SMART CANE?

In the photo below, Kürşat Ceylan navigates down some office stairs using a white cane that has a long control module attached that looks a bit like a stretched, but tapered TV remote control.

He is one in a line of well-meaning entrepreneurs who want to create assistive devices for blind people for improved quality of life. He’s already worked on a navigation tool for shopping centers, and an interface that provides audio descriptions for movies. The difference here is that Kürşat has been blind from birth. His latest project is WeWALK, a new smart cane. It ultrasonically detects overhead obstacles. It also integrates with a user’s smartphone and syncs up with apps such as Google Maps or with Amazon’s Alexa.

Blind entrepreneur Kursat Ceylon navigates down stairs in an office using the WeWALK smart cane he has developed.

Why is creating electronic canes for the blind so hard?

PBS & NPR partner WHYY explores the issues on The Pulse

Daniel Kish, Founder and Lead Instructor of Visioneers | World Access For The Blind has been blind from the age of 13 months and is considered the world’s leading expert on echolocation and it’s integration with Perception Cane instruction that forms the confluence of sonarvision – a way that blind people can train their brain to rewire over time to activate the visual cortex to process echoes of tongue-clicks from the surrounding environment.

In a recent interview with The Pulse on WHYY, the PBS TV, Radio and online affiliate in the greater Philadelphia area, Daniel says “Smart canes ignore the reality that we can provide a kind of cane training that makes the cane basically a natural extension of the body, to where it is fluid and comfortable and, above all, effective.”

As Steph Yin writes in the online feature about this topic: That’s one of Kish’s main gripes with smart canes. He believes that when you start adding batteries, sensors and buttons, you start interfering with all that.

“One of the things that happens, of course, is you make the cane heavier, you change the balance of the cane,” he said.

Furthermore, all of the additional sound and vibratory cues can be distracting. And electronics make a cane more difficult to maintain: You have to charge it; the technology can malfunction; and now the device is susceptible to weather and dirt.

Most importantly, Kish worries that fixating on electronics will shift focus away from building a good foundation in orientation and mobility. He wonders if the resources spent on tech might be better spent on cane training that really nurtures the skills for independence that blind people already have. After all, these are the skills they’ll always be able to fall back on.

That said, you can read or hear all sides of the discussion in the print article and by clicking the “Listen” button under the article headline at its page at WHYY.

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