Within just the past few years, scientists have developed an impressive number of experimental systems designed to help the blind navigate city streets. These have included devices that mount on the wrist, are incorporated into glasses, are worn as a vest, and that augment a traditional white cane. A young researcher at Hewlett-Packard Labs in Bangalore, India, however, has come up with something else - a navigational device for the blind that's built into a shoe.
Anirudh Sharma's system is called Le Chal, which is Hindi for "Take Me There." It is intended primarily to assist users in finding their way to specific geographical locations, although it also helps them avoid walking into things on their way there. Sharma designed the first prototype in January, while attending MIT's Design and Innovation workshop in the Indian city of Pune.
The basic idea behind Le Chal is that one of the user's shoes will provide haptic feedback, guiding the user toward their destination by vibrating in the front, back, or on either side - a vibration on the front indicates that they should keep going straight, a vibration on the left side means that they should turn left, and so on.
The user begins by entering their destination on Google Maps, using their Le Chal-app-running Android smartphone. That phone then communicates by Bluetooth with a LilyPad Arduino circuit board, located in the heel of the shoe. Following the Google-supplied turn-by-turn directions, along with locational data from its own GPS unit, the phone gets the Arduino to activate each of the shoe's four vibrators as needed. The vibrations start out low, but build in intensity as the user nears points where they have to turn.
A proximity sensor in the front of the shoe also alerts the user to obstacles, which it can detect from up to ten feet (three meters) away.
While there is no word of Le Chal being marketed any time soon, Sharma is planning to release the code for the app and the schematics for the shoe, via the Arduino community. He also plans on creating a Do-It-Yourself guide on Wikipedia, which users can update with their own improvements to the system.