Smart cane expands social horizon of visually handicapped

28 March 2012

BlindSpot is a white assistive cane that helps the visually impaired get around and opens up a new dimension in social communication
Photo: NUS Division of Industrial Design

Ms Chew receiving the Netexplo Grand Prix 2012 from Mr Eric Besson, French Minister for Industry, Energy and the Digital Economy, at the Netexplo Forum
Photo: Forum Netexplo 2012


Ms Selene Chew is set to impact the lives of visually impaired people with her invention created while still an undergraduate at the NUS School of Design and Environment.

The BlindSpot concept comprises a white cane with a built-in mobile phone, ultrasound sensor and tactile navigator. The system can detect objects to steer the user around obstacles. It also spots friends in the vicinity by alerting the user whenever friends check in nearby via geolocation services such as Foursquare. The navigation interface helps guide the user to meet them, thus addressing their social needs.

The foldaway, rechargeable cane conveniently turns into a mobile phone when not in use.

Ms Chew shared her design journey: "My initial idea was just to allow visually handicapped people know who was around them even before they were approached."

She finally decided on the most practical approach achievable with today's technology to cater to a specific group of users. "What I did was simply help them imagine the possibilities, and let them feedback on the functionalities and usefulness. It's all about their needs. That is how Blindspot was shaped and moulded," she explained.

She credited BlindSpot to volunteers from the Society of Moral Charities (Visually Handicapped). They contributed actively to her project and believed she could turn it into a workable product.

For this social invention, Ms Chew was awarded the Netexplo Grand Prix 2012. She represented the first Asian and youngest winner to receive the award at Netexplo Forum, an annual event for global digital innovation supported by UNESCO. She was also the runner-up for James Dyson Award 2011, an international student design award run by the James Dyson Foundation.

She felt overwhelmed by the recognition: "The whole award brought new interest to my project and I hope I can realise my dream of commercialising it and eventually giving the product to my visually handicapped users."

Now a junior researcher at NUS Design Incubation Centre, Ms Chew is working closely with the Keio-NUS CUTE Centre to develop the technical aspect of the product.

She noted that her course in NUS Division of Industrial Design had enhanced her critical design thinking. "It allows me to build sensitivity towards objects and users, an important attribute in creating something. The difference between an inventor and a designer, I feel, is that an inventor creates new things, and a designer makes it useful."

See video on how BlindSpot works.
See video presenting the Netexplo Grand Prix 2012 project.