New High Tech Innovations Could Aid Visually Impaired

A smart cane to help you walk

Key Takeaways

  • A new robot cane could help those with visual impairments find their way around. 
  • The design for the smart cane weighs only 3 pounds, can be built at home from off-the-shelf parts and free, open-source software, and costs $400.
  • It’s part of a growing number of tech solutions aimed at helping those with visual impairments.
Someone using a robotic cane to help navigate a walkway.


Visually impaired people are getting some high-tech help. 

Researchers at Stanford University have introduced an affordable robotic cane that they claim can guide people with visual impairments. The augmented cane helps people detect and identify obstacles and move around them. It's part of a growing number of tech devices aimed at helping those with visual impairments. 

"We are living in a digital-first world, and the global pandemic has heightened this reality," Tom Babinszki, vice president of accessibility at eSSENTIAL Accessibility, told Lifewire in an email interview. "With an increase in digital dependence, the gap between what's available online and what's actually accessible to people with visual impairments only continues to widen."

A Smarter Cane

Scientists have long been trying to develop a smart cane, but previous models tended to be bulky and expensive. The Stanford researchers say the design for their augmented cane weighs only 3 pounds, can be built at home from off-the-shelf parts and free, open-source software, and costs $400.

The researchers hope their device will be an affordable option for more than 250 million people with impaired vision worldwide.

"We wanted something more user-friendly than just a white cane with sensors," Patrick Slade, a Stanford researcher and first author of a new paper published in the journal Science Robotics describing the augmented cane, said in a news release. "Something that cannot only tell you there's an object in your way but tell you what that object is and then help you navigate around it." 

Seeing Eye Tech

Another gadget that's helpful for the visually impaired is accessiBe's AI-powered overlay technology that provides a way to make websites more usable for people with disabilities, including those with vision impairments.

By replacing manual, line-by-line remediation with AI and automation, accessiBe makes thousands of websites accessible, Michael Hingson, accessiBe's chief vision officer, who is blind from birth, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"We need tech innovations for vision-impaired people because we do not live in an inclusive society," Hingson said. "While sighted people read print, vision-impaired people use Braille, recorded and other electronic technology to be able to read and write. Unfortunately, not all websites have the tools needed for vision impaired people to access their content."

Mathpix provides AI-powered apps that use optical character recognition for math that allows teachers to recreate accessible math materials by just taking a picture. The digital representation can then be inserted directly into Microsoft Word in an accessible format. These documents can then be read by a screen reader or sent to some braille tablets, or translated to braille to be embossed. 

Closeup of Stanford's robotic cane for people with visual impairments.


"The alternative is typing everything up by scratch," Kaitlin Cunningham, the co-founder of Mathpix, told Lifewire in an email interview. "This is very time-consuming, often introduces human error, and many teachers don't know how to create digital math from scratch. Usually, this results in the student just not having the resources they need."

Another high-tech tool takes a more general approach to helping vision-impaired students. AI-powered transcription and captioning company Verbit offers software that provides descriptions of everything shown in class so that visually impaired or low vision students can participate.

"The need for tech innovations for the visually impaired accelerated as K-12 schools, colleges, and universities closed their doors to stem the spread of the coronavirus," Grenville Gooder, vice president of sales, education at Verbit, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Many teachers and professors were faced for the first time with the difficult task of engaging their students via remote learning."

With the rapid advancement of self-driving technology, one day, people who are blind may be able to purchase a personal vehicle, Doug Goist, a program manager at the National Industries for the Blind, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"For the first time in history, people who are blind would not have to rely on the constraints of public transportation or friends and family to navigate the world around them," he added.

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