Hebrew U device uses sonar to help the blind navigate

The "virtual cane" incorporates several sensors that estimate the distance between the user and the object it is pointed at.

June 22, 2011 06:38
3 minute read.
Dr. Yonatan Elkind, left, PhD student Oron Gar

HU’s Yissum Technology 311. (photo credit: Judy Seigel-Itzkovich)


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The blind and visually impaired could be able to toss away their white canes or at least “see” better with them, thanks to a “virtual cane” developed by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers and patented by Yissum, the university’s research and development company.

The device was unveiled at a HU press conference at the Jerusalem International Convention Center on Tuesday, just before the Israeli Presidential Conference opened there.

Dr. Amir Amedi of HU’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada and of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences and colleagues unveiled the inexpensive device, which emits a focused beam at objects around the user and transmits the visual information to to him via a gentle vibration similar to the quivering of a cellphone.

The technology transfer company in Jerusalem is now looking for strategic partners for further development.

Amedi estimated that the lightweight device, which reporters quickly learned to use to get through a dark maze blindfolded, would eventually cost about $100.

The highly intuitive electronic device, the size of a cellphone, incorporates several sensors that estimate the distance between the user and the object it is pointed at. This enables the blind person to assess the height and distance of various objects, reconstruct an accurate image of the surroundings and navigate safely. The “virtual cane” is easy to carry and accurate and can function for up to 12 hours between charges.

Amedi said the blind user functions like a dolphin or bat, with sonar-type signals reacting to surroundings.

Unlike a white stick that can give the blind input from only a meter away, the device can function at a much shorter distance and up to some 10 meters in all directions. The young researcher said the device can also distinguish between smiling and sad faces and can be used for research on how the brain flexibly changes upon receiving input and on brain reorganization in the blind.

There is a potential market of some 200 million visually impaired people around the world; 40 million of them are legally blind; all of them have difficulties in orientation and navigation, even with an ordinary stick. One of the main challenges facing blind people is the ability to assess the height of various obstacles as well as to identify far away objects in their surroundings. So far, until the journalists tried it, about a dozen people successfully navigated the maze, and after a very short practice period managed to completely avoid walls and obstacles without bumping their heads.

Yissum CEO Yaacov Michlin said that the promising invention “can endow visually impaired people with the freedom to freely navigate in their surroundings without unintentionally bumping into or touching other people, and thus has the potential to significantly enhance their quality of life.”

HU, for the second year a partner of Beit Hanassi in organizing the Israeli Presidential Conference, filled a hall near the entrance with displays and demonstrations of developments of its researchers. Carmi Gillon, the university’s vice president for external relations, said that 40 percent of all academic research in the country is done at HU; Yissum has made the university the 15th in the world in R&D.

Dr. Yonatan Elkind of HU’s Smith Institute for Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture, presented bell peppers suited to growing in the Arava in all seasons. The sweet pepper market has ballooned in Europe, with 60% of all agricultural land in the Arava devoted to the vegetable and yields very high.

The team are developing green peppers that remain green for a long time instead of turning red, and others that have special tastes and colors – even a brown one whose taste reminds people of chocolate. Others will have more vitamins and minerals than the conventional strains.

Agricultural doctoral student Oron Gar, who works with Prof. Dani Zamir, presented export roses that have restored a lovely scent instead of the scentless blossoms now sold commercially.

This was achieved from breeding that will also add new colors and forms of roses.

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