Project Enhances Mobility for the Visually Impaired
By Mark Dwortzan
One of this year’s BME senior design teams took second place in the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) Design by Undergraduate Biomedical Engineering Teams (DEBUT) competition. The team, which created a high-tech glove to enhance the capabilities of the traditional white cane used by people with visual impairments, will receive $15,000 at a ceremony at the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) conference in October.
The BME team’s entry, a “Sensory Substitution Glove for the Visually Impaired,” is designed to enable users to detect obstacles at head-height as well as sudden drop-offs, and do so early enough to change course and prevent injury. Equipped with ultrasound and infrared sensors, an accelerometer, a microprocessor and a small speaker, the backside of the glove scans the user’s surroundings and produces vibrational signals that cue him or her to avoid impediments within a one-to-two-meter range.
“It is truly an honor to be recognized along with my team members and advisor for this prestigious award,” said Poling Yeung, who developed the Sensory Substitution Glove with fellow BME 2014 graduates Michaelina Dupnik and William Moik under the guidance of Assistant Professor Jason Ritt (BME). “We hope that with funds from our award, the next group in the Ritt Lab can further advance our prototype and possibly begin clinical trials.”
“There have been many attempts at making sensory substitution mobility aids, including a few currently on the market, but so far they’ve seen limited adoption by the visually impaired population,” said Ritt. “The importance of this team’s work was to try to improve usability by adding intuitive motion control that expands what the glove senses.”
Ritt had challenged the team to create an inexpensive glove that would detect the potential for a fall based on a drop in ground level (e.g., due to steps, ditches and holes). A previous version developed by earlier senior design teams in his lab focused on object detection, but input from the Perkins School for the Blind necessitated a redesign that could accommodate sudden drop-offs. Yeung, Dupnik and Moik solved the problem by identifying and implementing suitable range-finding (ultrasound and infrared) sensors, and programming a microprocessor to convert outputs from these sensors into tactile vibration frequencies at the user’s index finger. By making certain gestures, the user can expand or restrict the glove’s sensing domain.
The first place team, from Johns Hopkins University, will receive $20,000 for its entry AccuSpine, a probe that uses lights and vibration to more safely and effectively place screws during spinal fusion surgeries. Sharing third place honors and each receiving $10,000 are a team from Rice University that designed a device designed to improve nutrient delivery to newborns, and a team from University of California, Riverside that designed a diaper-based lateral flow device for early detection of dehydration and bacterial infection.
“We are very proud to announce the winning projects,” said NIBIB Director Roderic I. Pettigrew. “All four of them show how a fresh perspective can create inexpensive, effective and transformative technologies to solve longstanding challenges in healthcare. I am excited to see how this next generation of biomedical engineers will continue to create technology that is better, faster and less costly.”
Sixty-three eligible entries were received from 33 universities in 19 different states. Judging was based on the significance of the problem being addressed, the innovation of the design, the existence of a working prototype, and the project’s potential impact on clinical care. The organization administering the competition, the NIBIB, is part of the National Institutes of Health.