In 1921, the first white cane was invented to help visually impaired people navigate their surroundings. Today, there are many companies out there looking into developing new assistive devices to replace the white cane or provide the white cane with additional functionalities to detect obstacles. STRAP Technologies, a US based startup, is creating a hands-free device designed to be worn by the visually impaired to allow for more independence and mobility.

Credit: Strap Technologies Youtube Channel
Photo: Courtesy of Strap Tech

Using an innovative array of sensors, such as radar, lidar, ultrasonic, similar to those sensors used by autonomous vehicles, STRAP is a wearable, hands-free device that works by sending real-time information and detects obstacles at the head, chest and below — including oncoming bumps, holes, overhanging objects and steps. The haptic language notifications also make STRAP an intuitive device to use and easy to learn in less than two minutes. It can also distinguish between physical objects and people. The device once charged can last up to 72 hours and is easy to recharge with a magnetic charger provided.

The startup, headquartered in Austin, Texas, with a Research and Development lab in Guadalajara, Mexico, claims that they want to create the first ever wearable device to help blind people navigate without a white cane. The device was first developed in Mexico by STRAP Technologies CEO and Founder, Diego Roel, who comes from an extensive background in robotics, new product ideation, R&D and IP strategy. 

“STRAP is the first assistive technology on the market that replaces the white cane that’s been in use for over 100 years.”

Diego Roel, STRAP Technologies CEO and Founder
Photo: Courtesy of Strap Tech
Photo: Courtesy of Strap Tech

“It is possible, but we’re probably still years away from having a total replacement of the white cane” says Dr. Yina Wu, Founder of AssistBuzz.com, a site reporting on the business of health startups and investments, seeing the rapid evolution of assistive technology products in the last decade. “Tech products for the visually impaired are continually improving and as the market for assistive technology keeps expanding, many technology startups are now developing solutions based on AI and IoT in effort to help the visually impaired.”

Today, many people who are blind or visually impaired still rely on white canes for their independent navigation. “I have seen many electronic enhancements to the traditional white cane being proposed, but there is a lack of empirical evidence on the extent to which such devices can detect obstacles and improve the mobility performance of visually impaired users”, Yina says.

From a technological point of view, STRAP built the product that employs some of the same kinds of sensors used by autonomous vehicles. “I am pleased to see companies like STRAP, leveraging new technologies to create assistive product to help visually impaired people navigate around obstacles”, says Alexander Piskunov, General Partner of Ruvento Ventures, a San Francisco based Venture Capital firm specialized in AI, Robotics and Mobility investments.

Cameras and Lidar radars — or sensors that help STRAP’s product recognize objects — allow the device to see the surroundings and convey this information to visually impaired users with haptic feedback. “But there will likely be moments, such as an equipment breakdown or inevitable accident, where the device may become unfunctional and unable to proceed”. In such cases, “certain backup solutions will be required”, Alex says. 

For example, he points to an Israeli autonomous vehicle safety startup, Phantom Auto, building a backup system that allows a remote driver to take control of an autonomous vehicle if it encounters a difficult scenario and gets confused, or is even involved in an accident. Even though a working person moves much slowly than a self-driving car, the company will need to find some backup solutions to help the visually impaired navigate through similar tricky situations. 

Q&A with Strap Technologies

Q: Can you share some examples of how the smart assistive device is communicating with users?

A: Our team has developed a wearable device that is composed of sensors and uses haptic language. Just by feeling vibrations in different parts of the body, the user is warned of obstacles, detected by the device’s sensors that are interpreted and classified by artificial intelligence.

The main incentive of STRAP is to achieve more independence for people with visual disabilities and give them more opportunities without the need to carry a cane or any other accessory. Our long-term goal is to replace the white cane entirely.

Q: There are already many assistive devices on the market, such as smart canes and other accessible GPS-apps, to help the blind navigate. How does STRAP differentiate itself from those devices that have been widely used by the visually impaired?

The wearable device also detects the approach of moving objects such as vehicles, alerting the user with enough time for the person to stop. Something new is the ability to detect things above the waist, spaces that the cane does not have access to. Thanks to the sensors, tall objects are detected such as trees, poles, signs, and columns, avoiding run-ins that can often occur and that the cane cannot detect. 

In addition to haptic language, STRAP also provides straight line navigation and the ability to go up and down stairs. 

Q: Is the product supporting audio guidance in different languages?

A: STRAP uses haptic language which is based on human behavior rather than a traditional language. Our haptic sensors (we use vibration-type and single-point-pressure-type sensors) are located in both the device itself which, when worn, is located at the chest, and also within the straps that hold the device to your chest. The straps go over the shoulders and around the torso. So, to answer your question, we will be sending haptic patterns of vibrations and “pokes” in different intensities, spatial patterns, and with various timing. In this way, the device is available to all global users regardless of their traditional languages.

Click here to see Strap Technologies Company & Funding Profile.

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