Drawing on echolocation principles used by bats and dolphins, a group of students at Wake Forest University, North Carolina, developed a watch prototype that uses sonar signals to paint a picture of the built environment.
The watch has two sonar distance sensors that send signals out into the environment and measure the distance they travel before hitting an object.
AdvertisementThis distance is changed into vibrating feedback on the wearer's wrist, like a haptic collision warning system.
William Conner, a biology professor at the University who advised the developers, says a sonar watch isn't a totally new idea.
Using sonar as a way to help the visually impaired has been the subject of research for a while now.
A quick search in the Internet will show you sonar hats and sonar-enabled canes. But there's a big difference says, Conner
"The watch uses tactile, not auditory feedback," he says.
The device has a range of about three feet, so it only buzzes when you're directly in front of an object.
The vibrations hit on your wrist - the closer you get to the object, the more frequent the buzz.
"By sweeping an arm, the user can scan the object to get a sense of how big it is. It's kind of like a sonar flashlight," says Conner.
Jack Janes, a senior computer science and physics major who worked on the project, said that it's not a standalone device.
"Right now you'd want to use it in tandem with a seeing dog or some other form of way-finding," he explained.
But the potential for this technology's future is exciting.
Attaching sensors and vibrators like a belt around the torso could enable users to get a bigger picture of their surroundings.
"It would take an upgrade in sensors and processing, but you could imagine how someday it might be possible to imprint more detailed, two-dimensional images onto the user's skin.
We'd have to know a lot more about echolocation, how the sounds process and have a much better interface. But it's just a matter of time," says Conner.