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Innovation By Design

This Device Helps Blind People Navigate The World Through Sound

Inspired by its designer's temporary loss of sight, Echo makes users' first visionless steps into the world less daunting.

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Two years ago, Yee Jek Khaw scratched his cornea while working in the woodshop as an industrial design student at the National University of Singapore. He initially believed he just had something in his eye, but after a few weeks it had swelled shut.

"I had a lot of trouble getting around my usual routine. I wasn’t really prepared for it," he says. His accident inspired Echo, a system that helps newly blind patients navigate the world around them through sound.

The Independence Problem
While his eye healed, Khaw began to wonder how people who experience abrupt vision loss adapt to their day-to-day lives. He started talking to newly visually impaired people and low-vision occupational therapists, and learned that many elderly people suffer from vision loss, which can have a debilitating impact on their independence. "One of the most detrimental and immediate impacts of vision loss is that you’re not able to move and orient like you were previously accustomed to," he says. "Mobility is key to independent life after vision loss."

But the available resources—mostly training centers that focused on outdoor wayfinding—sometimes didn't serve individuals who were scared to go outside without being able to see. And there's a manpower issue as well because this kind of system requires one-on-one training with a professional. In Singapore, Khaw said, it can take over a month to get an appointment, and waiting that long can have a serious impact on patients' determination to become independent again. He realized there should be a way for patients to start training in a more friendly, more accessible way.

How Echo Works
To address the gap in the resources he'd seen, Khaw came up with a prototype for Echo. If learning to navigate by sound is like learning to ride a bike, Echo is the training wheels: it's a series of speaker modules that trained therapists or family members can place indoors to create a soundscape for a patient. Sounds from the patient's own environment—the sound of their cat's collar jingling, the buzz of an alarm clock, the ring of the door bell—can be recorded on a mobile device and uploaded to Echo's corresponding app. While many testing techniques simply ask patients if they can hear a particular sound in an outdoor environment, Echo's app enables therapists to play specific sounds within a soundscape to test if patients can hear them or not.

Khaw explained the three steps of learning how to navigate with sound after vision loss. The first step is recognizing objects using sound, like understanding the difference between your phone timer and your microwave timer and your tea kettle. The second is to decipher relative distances between sounds in order to gain directional information. The third and most difficult step is to pinpoint landmarks using sound, even in a noisy soundscape—like being able to hear the direction of a train station over the noise of a city. Echo is designed to mostly help with the first phase of wayfinding.

"It comes in as a first step by making the adaptation process easier, more convenient, more accessible, and less of a learning curve," Khaw says. "It helps more people take the step toward becoming independent."

While Khaw designed Echo primarily for use by professional low-vision therapists who would use the device in a training center, a single therapist can supervise multiple Echo trainings at once, helping to cut down on the manpower problem. The device can also be taken home with the patient after sessions are done for more practice with a friend or family member.

The modules' design is low-vision friendly: they're deliberately simple square shapes so that visually impaired people can quickly conceptualize what the tool might look like.

What's Next
Echo is still in the prototyping stage, with about 60% of the functionality Khaw would like it to have. He's now studying for a masters in strategic product design at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and he hopes to continue working on the prototype and begin pilot studies with patients.

By bringing training for those who've experienced low vision loss indoors and lowering the barrier to entry, Echo has the potential to help more suddenly blind people rediscover the independence they've always known.

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