Could a belt with sensors be the best way to help people with visual impairments navigate the city? A group of engineering students from Smithfield High School thinks it might be.
Senior Andrew Stephenson teamed up with juniors Jake Wooster and Colin Keating for the first Hampton Roads Tech Ramp Competition to design a wearable system that provides auditory and tactile directions. The team won the award for the best overall project and the best build.
“Our design would help people get around and could serve as a replacement for a walking stick,” Wooster said. “It would give people two free hands instead of one and make things easier.”
The prototype is an adjustable belt with sensors and a motor that creates an auditory and tactile response that speeds up when the wearer approaches an object or another person. There are plans to combine it with an existing auditory GPS.
“One of the reasons for choosing a belt was because it’s discreet,” said engineering teacher and coach Heather Greer. “It’s used in the middle of the body, so it’s can detect hazards farther off the ground.”
“There have been many different electronic travel aides over the years, but none seem to stay around very long,” Kirsten Roshon Smith, Isle of Wight County Schools vision specialist said in an email. “Maybe this will be the one that sticks!”
She sees the belt working as a companion to the white cane or a wheelchair or walker. A sonar component mounted at the head or waist could help people avoid running into tree branches, awnings, signs and other low hanging items or displays, she added.
“Cane skills are great for finding drop-offs and step-downs, but the real tricky items are at head level,” Roshon Smith said.
All of the five teams that participated in the challenge were offered a monthlong membership at the 757 Makerspace in Norfolk to continue working on their projects. Three of the teams came from New Horizons Governor’s School for Science and Technology in Hampton. The other team was from Landstown High School in Virginia Beach.
“The Smithfield team stood out because they spoke with potential customers prior to the contest and created several prototypes,” said Beau Turner, competition judge and owner of 757 Makerspace. “They had some failures, but they built on those failures. They learned how to fail up and turn those failures into successes.”
The belt was not functioning Monday afternoon. Wooster said they didn’t have the power source available and that the team had decided to continue working to improve the code after the competition but the changes “had the opposite effect.” They’re going to keep working on the belt and the code with hopes to make it smaller and sleeker one day.
“It’s amazing — the level of creativity, their resilience because they first started this in February and they hit a couple of dead ends and some back-to-the-drawing-board moments, but it was so cool to see them sit down and figure out, ‘What do we do now?’” Greer said. “It’s a true representation of the engineering design process that things don’t always work out the way we planned.”