Modern personal devices facilitating the spacial orientation needs of blind and visually impaired people
This document is a continuation of a document earlier available at the University of Gdansk website. Some updates have already been included, many more are planned. Some important devices as Kapten and Ultracane are still missing. They will be added soon. Treat it as a temporary document.
If you know about new orientation aids (manufactured or designed), interesting objective reviews or would like to ask me about my experience with some devices described here, feel free to contact me via e-mail: email@example.com.
You are also invited to join a Google group on electronic orientation aids. The group is intended for users, designers, developers and researchers. We discuss there obstacle detectors, outdoor and indoor navigation, image recognition and any other electronic solutions which help blind users to orientate themselves in the area or situation.
Click here to learn more and join.
** - A device I use or used.
* - A device I had in my hands, so I can say at least a few words about it.
Obstacle detectors/scanning navigation aids
Scanning aids are devices and applications which scan the area or object and convert gathered data into a tactile or acoustic information without interpreting it. The data must be interpreted by the user. These devices are mainly so called obstacle detectors. Although comonly used, the term "obstacle detector" is not the best, because it suggest a very narrow application. In fact a good detector is much more useful as a tool to learn about the area, find openings as door, corridors, ends of buildings, detect people movement in a queue, find a free seaton a train etc., than just a protection against obstacles.
An advanced echolocation device. A box which is approximately 12 x 9 x 2 cm that can be either attached to a cane or held in the hand.
In addition to sensors, the outside of the box also features an earphone jack,
a charger jack, and three buttons (louder, softer, and change distance control 2/5 m).
The device's shape is difficult to describe. "A box" is a generalization. The manufacturer prefers to describe it as "torch".
Unlike ultrasonic obstacle detectors such as, for example, the Miniguide,
Palmsonar, and Ultracane,
which use vibration to announce the presence of and distance to an object,
K-Sonar uses sounds to "describe" the detected object (or, in fact, group of objects).
The pitch of the sound represents the object's distance
(higher means further away), and the clarity of the sound represents the object's texture (pure means hard or solid,
increased harshness means softer or decreased density).
So very different sounds are produced by, for example, a wall or post, or
a person, or a bush.
The direction the device is pointed at is analyzed and "described",
so when one encounters a large bush in front of a wall, for example, he hears both: a clear sound (for the wall)
and a hissing sound (for the bush).
The manufacturer states that a relatively narrow beam of ultrasound allows easier discrimination of individual objects
from one another, and that the auditory presentation technique makes it possible to actually recognize an object.
The device can be used in the rain.
An earphone must be used with K-Sonar. The manufacturer states that the earphone supplied with the device does not muffle sounds from the enviromment.
As is the case of most audio devices, however, the exact opposite may happen:
environmental sounds (like audio signals from traffic lights) can override the sounds produced by K-Sonar.
Manufacturer: Bay Advanced Technologies Ltd (New Zealand)
- Lawrence Gunther Euteneier, "Mississippi Lake Compass and Sonar Trials. Blind Fishing Boat. (01-07-2007) - description of usefulness of Miniguide, K-Sonar and a few other devices as aids on a fishing boat used by a blind person.
- Henryk Lubawy, "K-Sonar, czyli widzieć jak nietoperz" ("K-Sonar - to see like a batt"). Tyfloświat. 1 (3) 2009 - The author describes K-Sonar, writes about its history and presents self-training methods. (language: Polish, format: PDF)
- Rafał Charłampowicz, "K-Sonar". Tyflopodcast (25-08-2009) - K-Sonar presentation recorded for the Tyflopodcast portal. (language: Polish, format: MP3)
Laser Long Cane *
Last verification: 21.05.2015
Laser Long Cane combines a regular long cane with a laser obstacle detector. The detector is integrated into the cane's handle, and the handle itself can be attached to (almost) any other cane. A single sensor, perpendicular to the cane and protruding slightly forward, examines the area in front of the user's head and upper body. The laser beam sweeps the area in a 5-mm wide, 30-degree vertical arch. The range of the detector can be configured by the user to any distance in cm from 120 through 160.
Additionally to its main function, the cane can be used as a detector of more distant objects. In this mode one holds the cane in a vertical position and scans the area by turning the cane. According to the manufacturer in favorable conditions the laser can detect objects up to 10 meters. The user switches the detection modes (head protection and distant detection) with two buttons placed in a small compartment in the cane's handle.
The manufacturer's website emphasizes that they paid particular attention to the clarity of the obstacle announcement while designing the cane. When the laser beam encounters an object the user is alerted by vibration. the alert uses a very clear yes/no style. Vibration means that an obstacle is within range and no vibration means that one is not. The vibration strength does not reflect the distance to the object.
The narrowness of the laser beam allows precise determination of the obstacle's
location - the detection of an open door is also possible.
The cane is powered by two AA batteries, which allow 4 hours of vibration or 24 hours of use without vibration. According to the manufacturer, the batteries provide enough energy even for a few weeks of regular use. The batteries can be recharged directly while still in the cane's handle.
Manufacturer: Vistac (Germany)
- Rafał Charłampowicz, "Elektroniczne pomoce w orientacji przestrzennej ("Electronic travel aids"). Tyfloświat 1 (3) 2009 - Presentation of various electronic travel aids with special attention paid to obstacle detectors. (language: Polish, format: PDF)
A small device (80 x 38 x 23 mm) which - like Palmsonar - examines the area via ultrasound. It can be either held in a hand or attached to a cane - in the latter case a special coupling must be used to attach Miniguide to the cane's handle, and special training is recommended by the manufacturer. Detection of an object is signaled by vibration - the intensity of the vibration reflects the distance to the potential obstacle. Although the device has only one button, many configurations are available and the device is comfortable in use. The possible operating ranges are 0.5, 1, 2, 4, and 8 meters - the 8-meter range can only detect large objects beyond 4 meters. Miniguide has an audio output jack, so, in addition to vibration, sound can also be used - the higher or more frequent the audio signal (two separate modes), the nearer the object. This audio capability can be helpful when teaching blind children the concept of area.
The device is powered by a single, 123-type lithium battery.
According to the manufacturer, the battery provides enough energy for approximately 100 hours of continuous vibration or 1000 hours of audio output.
There is a special version of Miniguide made by American Printing House, called Miniguide US. The device has the same functionalities, but there is an additional button for quick access to the gap finding mode.
Manufacturer: GDP-Research (Australia)
- Lawrence Gunther Euteneier, "Mississippi Lake Compass and Sonar Trials. Blind Fishing Boat. (01-07-2007) - Description of usefulness of Miniguide, K-Sonar and a few other devices as aids on a fishing boat used by a blind person.
A small (100 x 16 x 34 mm) hand-held device which examines area with infrared light. Minitact's sides are flat, so it feets well in a pocket. Detection of an obstacle is signalled with vibration. Depending on a model there is only one or two levels of vibration. In the latter case the fast vibration signals a short distance to the detected object.Minitact has four ranges of detection. Exact distances depend on various conditions (e.g. lighting) and the manufacturer prefers calling them: very long, long, short and very short. There at least two versions of the device. The older one with approximate ranges: 7, 4, 1.2 and 0.3 m, and the new one with ranges: 6, 4, 2 and 1 m (the distances are my own calculations and by no means should they be treated as precise and official data).
The device has a very interesting, well-designed interface. On a top, narrow side there is one, protruding toggler which can be set in three positions:
- central position - turned off,
- forward - the longest range,
- backward - the shortest range.
The device is not available on the market on standard conditions. Similarly to other travel aids made by Visioptronic, Minitact is delivered with a training which is a part of scientific research.
Minitact is powered by two AAA batteries, which allow around 30 hours of usage (data from the manufacturer).
Manufacturer: Visioptronic (France)
- Rafał Charłampowicz, "Niedoceniane detektory przeszkód" ("Obstacle detectors not valued enough"). Tyfloświat 4 (13) 2011 - article on usability and usefulness of obstacle detectors with a special attention paid to my two-year experience with Minitact.
Ultrasonic Blind Glasses *
Last verification: 10.04.2016
A pair of glasses with an ultrasonic obstacle detector placed on the bridge between the lenses.
The obstacle detection range is around 4 meters.
Obstacles are announced with short sounds produced by a bone-conduction earphone placed in the left temple. The frequency of sounds reflects the distance to the obstacle.
Manufacturer: Beijing Outsmarting Dacone Instrument (China)
Palmsonar PS231-7 *
Last verification: 02.06.2010
A small, hand-held device (20 x 31 x 77 mm, weight 40 g), which - like Miniguide - examines the area via ultrasound. Detected objects are signalled by vibration. The speed of the vibration reflects the distance to the object.
Palmsonar has seven ranges - from 0.3 to 4 meters. The width of the beam of ultrasound is 60 degrees horizontally (both transducers in a line) and 30 degrees vertically. The manufacturer emphasizes that having such a narrow beam of ultrasound Palmsonar is "a cane of air" with which one scans the area and objects and not an obstacle detector.
Palmsonar is powered by one CR2032 lithium battery which - according to the manufacturer -
is enough for 24 hours of standard use. The device operates in temperatures
from -10 degrees C to 50 degrees C (provided that in low temperature it is warmed by user's palm).
The device has been released in 2003 year.
Manufacturer: Takes Corporation (Japan)
A belt with a built-in compass and 16 vibration units placed in an even distance from one another.
The device can be used as a tactile compass. The vibration unit which is at the particular moment pointing North signals the direction with a vibration. When the user turns, another unit is activated to mark the change in orientation.
NaviBelt can be also used as a GPS navigation tool. In this case it serves as a tactile interface for a GPS navigation app on a smartphone. The user is informed by vibrations whether he or she should turn left or right.
For a long time the prototype has been developed at the University of Osnabrück. Recently (2016) a separate company has been created to develop and sell NaviBelt.
Manufacturer: FeelSpace GmbH (Germany)
NaviEye is a device which uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) to monitor its user's exact geographical location.
The latest version of NaviEye is a box with dimensions 117 x 78 x 24mm. The device is equipped with a microUSB 2.0 port, audio stereo 3.5mm jack and a microphone 3.5mm jack. The device is also equipped with an internal speaker and a highly sensitive microphone, but using a head set (included) is recommended. NaviEye can be controlled either via buttons (10 buttons are easy to locate and differentiate) or via voice control.
Open Street Map is used to navigate and locate the user. Additionally the user can save his own places which can be used as a point of destination.
GPS navigation is one of NaviEye's functionalities. The other are:
- Voice recorder,
- Book reader (playing audio books),
Manufacturer: Migraf (Poland)
Piepsy, is an acoustic locator. These devices are often called "beacons".
The equipment set consists of a small transmitter (about 75 x 25 - 37 x 20 - 27 mm,
weighing 23 g), and a receiver with a speaker.
Pressing the button on the transmitter causes the receiver to produce a sound which increases in volume. The transmitter is water-proof so it can be used to find things after swimming in a pool or lake.
Piepsy's operating range - in an open area - is 40 meters.
The receiver uses two AAA batteries.
According to the manufacturer, the receiver can remain in standby mode for up to 40 days.
The transmitter is powered by a C2032 battery which should last for years.
Manufacturer: Vistac (Germany)
- Rafal Charlampowicz, "Technology does not solve everything". (08-06-2015) - an adventure with Piepsy.
Computer enhanced vision
BrainPort V100 *
Last verification: 29.01.2016
The device consists of three units:
- a pair of glasses with a slightly protruding (3 cm) video camera mounted on the glasses' bridge,
- a tongue display unit which is a flat, smooth rectangle 30 x 33 mm with 400 microelectrodes (the electrodes form the actual square display),
- a controller (13 x 5 x 3 cm) with six buttons and two knops.
The controller and the tongue unit are connected with the glasses via a cable. The tongue unit is placed on the user's tongue. A black and white video from the camera is converted into electrostimulation on the tongue producing a kind of live tactile graphics. By default white is converted into a stimulation and black is represented by a lack of stimulation, but the setting can be reverted. Using the simplest example the user who looks at a windows from inside the building may feel on her or his tongue a square produced with electrostimulation on a smooth surface. Light coming in from the window is converted into stimulation and the area around the window is recognized as black.
The zoom and intensity of the electrostimulation can be adapted by the user. The user can also switch between looking straight ahead and looking down. The latter function is useful when one works at the table.
The battery allows three hours of usage. Two batteries are provided by the manufacturer.
BrainPort is delivered with a training. In Europe trainings are conducted in Italy, Poland and United Kingdom.
Manufacturer: Wicab (United States)
- Anonymous, Disblogled: It's on the tip of my tongue - A very interesting blog on which one woman describes her experience with BrainPort.
- Rafał Charłampowicz, "BrainPort". Tyfloświat 4 (29) 2015 - The article discusses my experience with BrainPort V100. In November 2015 I underwent a three-day training with this device. (language: Polish)
Manufacturer: OrCam (Israel)
The RF-based system consists of a base unit and an activator. The base unit (11 x 13 x 3 cm; 160 g) includes a transmitter, a receiver, a microphone, a recording unit and a speaker through which recorded announcements are played. The base unit should be installed in places important for users' orientation. The activator/receiver is a small device (5,5 x 3,3 x 1 cm; 40 g) with three buttons. When the activator is within range of the base unit's signal (two ranges are available: 3 - 8 m and 3 - 10 m) it starts to vibrate and/or beep. In the base unit two one-minute-long recordings can be saved. They are played by pressing two buttons on the activator. The third button switches the activator on and off and changes the way in which the device signals detection of the base unit (beep/vibrate/beep and vibrate).
The base unit is powered by mains. The emergency power is supplied by 4 AAA, 1,5V batteries which allow 8 hours of operation. A battery in the activator provides enough energy for a few days of use, but the manufacturer recommends recharging it everyday.
There is also a version of the Step-Hear system for public transportation. The base unit (for instance on a bus) has a range of 20 meters. When the user presses a button on the activator the announcement from the speaker is played - for example the bus number - and the driver sees the message on the bus ticketing board that a visually impaired person is waiting at the stop.
Manufacturer: Step-Hear Ltd. (Israel)
Present Projects and Prototypes
Remote Assistance System **
Last verification: 03.02.2013
The system enables its blind user to be verbaly guided by a remote operator located either at home or in a call centre. The device worn by the blind person is equipped with a small digital camera, a GPS receiver and a headset. Video and GPS data are sent to the remote operator who having the direct view of the user's area and his or her location on a digital map can alert the user to obstacles, describe the area and situation and guide to a selected location.
Together with a new travel aid based on stereovision and auditory display currently worked on in the Institute of Electronics at the Technical University of Lodz, the Remote Assistance System constitutes the Naviton - Personal Navigation System - project.
Research: Technical University of Lodz, Institute of Electronics (Poland)
- Naviton - Personal Navigation System for Aiding the Blind - the project website.
Last verification: 09.03.2016
The device has a shape of a horseshoe and is worn around the user's shoulders. It is to be equipped with cameras, speakers, vibration units and a microphone. The user interface will take advantage of buttons, speech recognition and text-to-speech. A bluetooth connection with a smartphone is also planned.
The user will be informed about detected signs and other features of his or her surroundings, such as escalators, stairs, bathrooms and doors. The solution is intended for indoor navigation.
Facial recognition, object identification and mapping will be added in the future.
Research: Toyota, Partner Robot Department (United States)
Devices no longer manufactured
A unique solution which enables its user to verify that the traffic light at an intersection is green. Green light detectors have been placed within the cane's handle. When at a light-controlled intersection, you press a button on the handle to turn on the detectors, and then lift the cane up so that the detectors in its handle are as near as possible to the lowest light. If the light turns green within three minutes then the cane signals this with a sound. The manufacturer states that the cane's sound can be heard even while a truck is passing nearby.
The green light recognition system differentiates between natural and artificial light.
It also filters out potential interference, for example that caused by a green neon sign.
The cane's handle is made of wood so that it can be safely used by people with allergies.
The embedded battery should last for more than two years assuming an average
usage of 50 times (150 minutes) per day.
The cane should undergo regular servicing every two years during which time
the battery would be replaced.
Manufacturer: Kemper Hilfstechnik (Germany)
Last verification: 06.06.2008
Electronic Locator, like Piepsy, is an audible orientation aid primarily designed for finding objects and places. The device set consists of a transmitter with four buttons, and four separate, corresponding receivers. The transmitter is similar in size to a TV remote control and each receiver is slightly larger than a domino. Pressing a button on the transmitter causes the corresponding receiver to produce a loud sound.
The device has a working range of about 25 metres.
Each receiver is powered by one CR2032 3V battery.
The transmitter is powered by one A23S 12V battery.
Manufacturer: Royal National Institute of Blind People (United Kingdom)
Loadstone GPS *
Last verification: 24.03.2015
Free software for cellular phones based on the Symbian series 60 operating
system which enables the user to take advantage of the navigational
capabilities provided by the satellites of the Global Positioning System.
The equipment set consists of a mobile phone, screen reader or magnification software, a bluetooth GPS receiver, the Loadstone GPS software, and a Bluetooth headset (optional but recommended).
Loadstone GPS does not work with maps. The user either saves his own point definitions or downloads them from the
This version of Navigator was manufactured til around 2012. Its successor is NaviEye.
Navigator (in Polish "Nawigator") is a device which uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) to monitor its user's exact geographical location. The latest version is in a box with dimensions 6 x 11 x 2 cm, with a headphone jack and a slightly protruding antenna. The device also has an internal speaker, but using a headphone, especially when in a noisy area, is recommended. Navigator does not use maps. Its owner uses his own point definitions, points copied from internet sources, and a rich set of addresses and Points of Interest (POIs) provided by the manufacturer on a memory card. The device is characterized by quick access to its commands and functions.
Navigator is powered by one 3300 mAh lithium battery which is integrated into the device.
By default the battery is charged via the USB port of a computer.
According to the manufacturer, the battery provides enough energy for 30 hours of continuous operation.
Manufacturer: Migraf (Poland)
A laser telemeter with operating ranges of 15 m, which is clipped to a cane. The device is manufactured with both interfaces: audio and tactile.
The audio version of Teletact uses 28 uneven intervals : the intervals are
shorter at short distances, musical notes are assigned - the lower note,
the longer distance.
Using Teletact is not based on memorising which note is assigned to which distance, but on listening to the rate and direction in which the notes change. While scanning the area we can hear a kind of melody which is the basis for our mental image of the object scanned and our position relative to it.
The tactile version has the same range as the audio version. The interface
consists of two vibration units, each located under a different finger. The tactile version has the same range as the audio version. The interface
consists of two vibration units, each located under a different finger.
One unit signals objects at a distance from 3m to 12m (a rough vibration from 3m to 6m, and a simple vibration from 6 to 12m). The other unit signals obstacles from 0 to 1.5m (a strong and rough vibration), and from 1.5m to 3m (a simple strong vibration).
Teletact works in the same way on summer sunny days, under rain and by night.
Purchasing Teletact is connected with participation in a 25-hour training, demanded by the manufacturer. Work on Teletact and handing it over to users, the same as in the case of Tom Pouce, is combined with a research on usefulness of modern, electronic orientation and travel aids in everyday life of a blind person. At the moment (May 2009) the training and research is conducted in France, Peru and Colombia.
Manufacturer: Visioptronic (France)
- Teletact - a text version of the description (for English see "Publications" link)