How a ‘buzzing belt’ could help people with vision loss find their way around by vibrating to warn them of objects in their path
- The device uses a camera to sense and locate items that are in the way
- Vibrations warn the wearer of the belt that something is approaching
- The developers of the belt believe it is the ‘next generation’ of visual aid
A ‘buzzing belt’ could help people with vision loss get around by warning them of nearby objects.
A built-in camera on the belt senses items as close as 30cm (11.8inch) and triggers vibrations through patches that are worn on the body.
Developers at University Hospital Southampton (UHS) believe the technology could be the ‘next generation’ of visual aid.
There are almost two million people living with sight loss in the UK, and 25.5million in the US, some of whom need guide dogs or canes to get around.
A belt could help people with vision loss get around. A camera inside (3) senses objects in front and sends vibrations through patches worn on the chest and ankles (1 and 2)
A UHS spokesman said: ‘The belt consists of a 3D depth-sensing camera and a portable computer stick connected via WiFi to vibration patches hidden on a vest and ankle straps.
‘It scans the area in front of the person using the 3D camera and warns the user about nearby objects through vibrations – the faster the buzzing, the nearer the object – with the position indicated by the left, centre or right patch.’
The technology, known as the Low-vision Enhancement Optoelectronic (LEO) Belt, is currently going through trials at UHS.
A small study has already shown it can help people with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) successfully navigate a maze.
RP causes a loss of peripheral sight like tunnel vision and can make it difficult to see in low light. It starts in childhood and gets progressively worse.
Professor Andrew Lotery, a consultant ophthalmologist at UHS who ran the study, said: ‘In this small pilot study we have shown the belt has great promise and, based on what we have learned, intend to develop it further to hopefully help patients retain their independence despite sight loss.
HOW DO VISUALLY IMPAIRED PEOPLE GET AROUND?
Cane: These make other people aware that you have sight loss so they can move out the way.
Guide dogs: Charities provide trained dogs to people with vision loss who meet a certain criteria – such as being physically active.
GPS: A global positioning system is a navigational aid that uses signals from satellites to tell you where you are and help plan your journeys. Units can be programmed using a Braille keyboard and there are a number of useful apps.
‘The belt has the advantage over alternative aids for people with sight loss, such as a white stick or guide dog, in that it can be worn under their clothes and be relatively discreet.
‘This could help those who are reluctant to use a visual aid for fear of discrimination.’
In the study, six patients with advanced RP and 20 unaffected people wearing goggles that restricted their vision were assessed.
The results, published in the journal PLoS One in October, showed all participants were able to use the belt to guide them around four mazes made from obstacles arranged in different ways.
Wearing the LEO belt, the participants made 44 per cent less errors in the maze than when they didn’t have the belt on.
Those with RP said they found the belt ‘particularly useful’ when finding their way around the mazes in low lighting when their vision is worse.
However, regardless of severity of vision loss, all participants were slower to complete the mazes using the device.
The authors concluded: ‘The LEO Belt’s positive user feedback suggests it has potential to become the next generation of visual aid for visually impaired individuals.
‘Given the novelty of this approach, we expect navigation speeds may improve with experience.’
Professor Lotery helped Professor Steve Russell of the University of Iowa develop the belt.