A new smart cane uses sophisticated technology found in self-driving cars to assist people with visual impairments. Researchers at Stanford University adapted the technology to improve object navigation over many smart canes currently on the market. The team recently described the cane in the journal Science Robotics. The published study contains a link to open-source software, hardware information, and research data so that individuals can replicate the robotic cane themselves.

Standard smart canes have limited sensor technology, so they only identify objects in the direct path of the user. The augmented cane, however, is equipped with multiple sensor and navigational technologies. These include LIDAR (a laser-based sensor used in some types of self-driving vehicles and aircraft), GPS, and smartphone-inspired gyroscopes, accelerometers, and magnetometers. 

By combining these features, the team created a smart cane that not only senses objects from many angles, but also detects position, speed, direction, and other metrics. During use, artificial intelligence continually analyzes the data and applies robotic mapping and steering algorithms that allow the user to proceed safely when walking inside or outside. 

To guide the user, the AI controls a motorized, omnidirectional wheel that contacts the ground at the cane’s tip. The wheel gently tugs the cane around objects and along navigational routes. Like a smartphone, the GPS can generate guidance to an address or business, such as a restaurant or store. 

In tests conducted at the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Palo Alta, CA, both visually impaired and sighted people with blindfolds used the cane in everyday situations. Visually impaired volunteers walked about 20% faster with the augmented cane than with a simple white cane. Interestingly, sighted volunteers experienced more enhanced navigation, as the cane improved their walking speed by more than a third.

A 20% increase in walking speed could significantly impact the quality of life for visually impaired individuals. The cane could increase motivation to walk for exercise and make everyday travel more efficient and less stressful. 

Although the augmented cane costs more than existing smart canes, at $400 its price is reasonable for the kind of technology it contains. The prototype cane can be built at home with off-the-shelf parts thanks to the open-source instructions. Next, the researchers intend to improve the cane by integrating it with a smartphone, making it even more affordable.