By Karen Eng
A haunting black-and-white video screened during the TED Fellows talks, depicting people speaking into a device and then walking — at first taking halting steps, then more confident strides. As the video unfolds, the camera zooms in on the faces of the walkers — revealing that they are blind.
With his team, TED Senior Fellow Anthony Vipin Das, an eye surgeon, has been developing haptic shoes that use vibration and GPS technology to guide the blind. This innovation — which could radically change the lives of the vision-impaired — has drawn the interest of the United States Department of Defense, which has recently shortlisted the project for a $2 million research grant. Anthony tells us the story behind the shoe.
Tell us about the haptic shoe.
The shoe is called Le Chal, which means “take me there” in Hindi. My team, Anirudh Sharma and Krispian Lawrence and I, are working on a haptic shoe that uses GPS to guide the blind. The most difficult problems that the blind usually face when they navigate is orientation and direction, as well as obstacle detection. The shoe is in its initial phase of testing: We’ve crafted the technology down to an insole that can fit into any shoe and is not limited by the shape of the footwear, and it vibrates to guide the user. It’s so intuitive that if I tap on your right shoulder, you will turn to your right; if I tap on your left shoulder, you turn to your left.
The shoe basically guides the user on the foot on which he’s supposed to take a turn. This is for direction. The shoe also keeps vibrating if you’re not oriented in the direction of your initial path, and will stop vibrating when you’re headed in the right direction. It basically brings the wearer back on track as we check orientation at regular intervals. Currently I’m conducting the first clinical study at LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India. It’s very encouraging to see the kind of response we’ve had from wearers. They were so moved because it was probably the very first time that they had the sense of independence to move confidently — that the shoe was talking to them, telling them where to go and what to do.
How do you tell the shoe where you want to go?
It uses GPS tracking, and we’ve put in smart taps: gestures that the shoe can learn. You tap twice, and it’ll take you home. If you lift your heel for five seconds, the shoe might understand, “This is one of my favorite locations.” And not just that. If a shoe detects a fall, it can automatically call an emergency number. Moving forward, we want to try to decrease the dependency on the phone and the network to a great extent. We hope to crowdsource maps and build up enough data to store on the shoe itself.
The second phase we are working on is obstacle detection. India has got such a varied terrain. The shoe can detect immediate obstacles like stones, potholes, steps. It’s not a replacement for the cane, but it’s an additive benefit for a visually impaired person to offer a sense of direction and orientation.
Are you still in the development stage?
The insole is already done. We are currently testing it. I’m using simple and complex paths — simple paths like a square, rectangle, triangle and a circle, and complex paths include a zigzag or a random path. Then we are going to step it up with navigation into a neighborhood. From there we’ll develop navigation to distant locations, including the use of public transportation. It will be a stepwise study that we’ll finish over the middle of this year, then go in for manufacturing the product.
You’re an eye doctor. How did you get involved in this?
I’m an eye surgeon who loves to step out of my box and try to see others who are working in similar areas of technology that are helpful for my patients. So Anirudh Sharma and I, we’re on the same TR35 list of India in 2012. I said, “Dude, I think we can be doing stuff with the shoe and my patients. Let’s see how we can refine it.” There was already an initial prototype when he presented last year at EmTech in Bangalore. Anirudh teamed up with one of his friends, Krispian Lawrence of Ducere Technologies in Hyderabad, who is leading the development and logistics to get this into the market. We just formed a really cool team, and started working on the shoe, started testing it on our patients and refining the model further and further. Finally we’ve come to a stage where my patients are walking and building a bond with the shoe.
Are these patients comfortable with the shoe?
Yes, it’s totally unobtrusive. And more importantly, we are working on developing the first vibration language in the world for the Haptic Shoe. We’re looking at standardizing the vibration, like Braille, which is multilingual. But even more crucial than the technology, the shoe is basically talking to the walker. How they can trust the shoe? So that’s an angle that we are looking at. Because at the end of the day, it’s the shoe that’s guiding you to the destination. We’re trying to build that bond between the walker and the sole.
Building a bond with the sole. That’s good. I’m going to use that.