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Smart cane may help visually impaired navigate more terrain

August 26, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
A high-tech upgrade to the traditional white cane may help blind and visually impaired people be more confident about navigating the world independently. The NewsHour's April Brown reports from France.
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GWEN IFILL: Now an innovation that may help the blind become more independent.

It’s a new take on the familiar white cane that the visually impaired have been using for decades.

The NewsHour’s April Brown reports from the northeast region of France for the latest in our Breakthroughs series on invention and innovation.

APRIL BROWN: Lysiane Perney doesn’t see the world the way most people do. In fact, she doesn’t see much of it at all. Perney, who lives in the city of Nancy in Northeastern France, suffers from retinitis pigmentosa. Photoreceptor cells in her eyes, the rods and cones, have been dying. And that causes the gradual loss of everything but central vision, and also the ability to see colors.

LYSIANE PERNEY, Visually Impaired (through interpreter): When you move around in a city when you are visually impaired, it is very stressful, knowing where you are, having some landmarks, knowing this is the right bus line.

APRIL BROWN:
Nevertheless, Perney is a busy, independent woman, an elected city council member and an advocate for the disabled. She moves around with the help of a few smartphone apps and a white cane, the kind the visually impaired have been using for decades to avoid obstacles.

But, soon, she may be able to buy a new kind of cane, one that will tell her a lot more about her surroundings.

FLORIAN ESTEVES,
Co-Founder, Handisco: You can have real-time information during your walk, like you can have information about public transportation, about the shops, public places. You can have at what time the shop opens.

APRIL BROWN:
Florian Esteves and Mathieu Chevalier are engineering graduates turned budding entrepreneurs who are developing an intelligent white cane. They have created a high-tech box that fits on a traditional white cane and uses infrared and ultrasonic sensors to detect obstacles, triggering the handle to vibrate.

FLORIAN ESTEVES: Just by pressing a button, you can hear the light is green, the light is red, you can cross, be careful about maybe a car, wait a minute.

APRIL BROWN: Their cane also incorporates GPS technology to determine a person’s location, and will share data from the city of Nancy and elsewhere that will be relayed through a Bluetooth headset.

COMPUTER VOICE: Tramway stop. Next tramway five minutes.

APRIL BROWN:
The idea for the intelligent white cane was hatched while Esteves and Chevalier were students at the University of Lorraine. They entered Le Defi Cisco, a contest designed to inspire technological innovations to solve social and environmental problems.

MATHIEU CHEVALIER,
Co-Founder, Handisco: We just observed that these people only use a simple stick every day to work in the city. And we had all the same reaction. With all of the current technology and the current objects, we can do better.

APRIL BROWN: And their better stick won. The contest sponsor, Cisco France, awarded the team the top prize and 70,000 euros, about $77,500.

REMI SEDILOT, Director of Commercial Distribution, Cisco France: For the contest, what we are trying to choose is projects that are touching the life of people.

APRIL BROWN: Remi Sedilot is the company’s sales and marketing director in France. He now mentors Esteves and Chevalier as they try to grow their new company, Handisco, and get the intelligent cane ready for the market.

FLORIAN ESTEVES: LED for night visibility and some buttons to interact.

APRIL BROWN:
As trained engineers, Esteves and Chevalier admit they can use Sedilot’s help on the business end.

REMI SEDILOT:
I’m just trying to help them to identify the right contacts or the right things to do to be ready, to have a good market study, what is the pricing structure they should have to have a chance to sell.

APRIL BROWN: But, before they can sell, they have to refine their prototype. The pair has been working closely with the city of Nancy to pursue additional funding, and find a way to get existing data about transportation schedules, accessibility and other services into a computer program that works with the cane. Esteves and Chevalier are also collaborating with eventual users of their product.

MATHIEU CHEVALIER: They tell us all the problems they can encounter in everyday life, so that’s really helped us to build our functionality around their problem.

APRIL BROWN: Like the problem of portability. Since the box fits on an existing white cane, it folds and unfolds just as easily.

Is that something that blind people told you was necessary?

FLORIAN ESTEVES: Yes.

MATHIEU CHEVALIER: Yes. It’s very, very important.

APRIL BROWN: That kind of insight has come from a partnership with Association Valentin Hauy, a French organization supporting the visually impaired.

MARIE-JOSE DIEUDONNE, Association Valentin Hauy (through translator): The stick is a marvelous object because it provides with all that their eyes can’t give them; 75 percent of all information comes through vision.

APRIL BROWN: Marie-Jose Dieudonne has been working with Nancy’s visually impaired for years and runs the association’s office there. She believes there is a ready market for the cane, even at an expected cost of 500 euros.

MARIE-JOSE DIEUDONNE (through interpreter): I think 30 percent of the visually impaired would go for such a product, so all the people between 30 and 75. With the baby boom, there are more and more seniors, and they will opt for a connected stick. It is an age group that is already connected.

APRIL BROWN: Meanwhile, Lysiane Perney has been testing the weight of the prototype, and wishes it could be a bit lighter. And she is looking forward to playing a role in the next stage of the cane’s development, taking it for a real trial run as soon as the computer programming is finished.

LYSIANE PERNEY
(through interpreter): I was a bit skeptical about something new coming onto the market. But I wanted to test it, because the best ones to try it out are us, the end users, visually impaired people. I rejoiced in discovering that it could bring us something more.

APRIL BROWN: And the hope is the cane will give the visually impaired more information and more confidence to successfully navigate the world on their own.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m April Brown in Nancy, France.

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