It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: A brain expert, a bat biologist, and an engineer walk into a cafeteria. But that’s exactly what happened when a casual meeting of the minds at England’s Leeds University led to the invention of the Ultracane, a walking stick for the blind that vibrates as it approaches objects.
The cane works using echolocation, the same sensory system that bats use to map out their environments. It lets off 60,000 ultrasonic pulses per second and then listens for them to bounce back. When some return faster than others, that indicates a nearby object, which causes the cane’s handle to vibrate. Using this technique, the cane not only “sees” objects on the ground, such as trash cans and fire hydrants, but also senses things above, such as low-hanging signs and tree branches. And because the cane’s output and feedback are silent, people using it can still hear everything going on around them. Although the Ultracane hasn’t experienced ultra-stellar sales, several companies in the United States and New Zealand are currently trying to figure out how to market similar gadgets using the same bat-inspired technology.
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