A Carle Illinois College of Medicine student team has designed a new assistive device that uses sound-wave technology to empower sight-impaired people to move safely and independently in their environment. The handheld device uses ultrasound technology to allow people with poor vision to comprehensively scan their environment for obstacles to avoid hazards.

The innovation, called EYES, or Enhancing Your Everyday Sight, locates objects as far away as seven feet and then pinpoints the obstacle’s direction and proximity. “Information about any upcoming obstacles is transmitted back to the user through vibration patterns in the handle of the device,” said Emily Smith, one of the Carle Illinois students who spearheaded development. “There are different patterns to tell the user where the obstacle is, and the vibration intensity increases as the user nears the obstacle.” Smith explained.

Emily Smith, Carle Illinois College of Medicine
Emily Smith, Carle Illinois College of Medicine

The device – developed by Smith and fellow Carle Illinois students Natalie Ramsy and Katy Stauffer —  is a more flexible, user-friendly tool than white canes, sometimes used by blind people to tap the ground in front of them to ‘feel’ for obstacles. “Unlike a traditional white cane, it’s also able to detect obstacles which do not contact the ground, such as signs or branches, which may present a hazard to the user,” Ramsy explained. “It’s also more compact and may be used more discreetly (than canes) or with other assistive devices such as a walker or wheelchair.”

EYES is in its first prototype, but future iterations could incorporate new features, while keeping the device affordable. “By assembling our initial prototype with off-the-shelf electronics components and 3D-printed housing, we demonstrate that it would be highly feasible to design a market-ready product at a cost significantly lower than competing high-tech solutions, which cost hundreds of dollars on average,” Stauffer said.  The team hopes to add the ability to distinguish between different surfaces and an alert to notify others of the user’s low vision.

Natalie Ramsy, Carle Illinois College of Medicine
Natalie Ramsy, Carle Illinois College of Medicine
Katy Stauffer, Carle Illinois College of Medicine
Katy Stauffer, Carle Illinois College of Medicine

The new tool is already gaining notice at a nationally known medical devices conference at the University of Minnesota. “Based on our submission to the Design of Medical Devices Conference (Advances in Medical Devices Session), we were selected to compete in the conference’s five-minute pitch competition against nine other teams from universities, corporations, and hospitals from around the country,” Ramsy said. The team’s work has been published in The American Society of Mechanical Engineers Proceedings as a follow-up to their conference presentation.

The project was adopted by a team of senior design students in UIUC’s bioengineering department, consisting of Nina Chen, Benjamin Salzberg, and Alexander Sudrzynski, advised by Carle Illinois and Bioengineering Professor Holly Golecki.

EYES was developed with financial support from Carle Illinois’ Health Maker Lab.