>The SWAN Turned Me Into an Ugly Duckling!

>I don’t know how to feel about this invention. Ok, let me try and break it down as best I can. They’re trying to invent this navigation system for blinks called SWAN, which stands for System for Wearable Audio Navigation. It’s supposed to help you navigate, and let you know about nearby objects and such. It’s sort of like a GPS and a cane/dog all rolled into one.

On the positive side, they’re trying to make the sounds as unobstructing of other sounds, and as easy to interpret as possible. They are also using bone-conducting headphones, or “bone phones”, (eeewww that sounds wrong) to conduct the sounds via vibrations through the skull, which also sounds very distracting, and somehow not plug our ears. I’m very happy they realize that we do need our ears, though. So many other technologies designed to help us want to encase our ears or heads in something that obscures all the other noises we need to use to get around.

But here come the negatives. This is a list of things the user needs to wear to get this system to work. As you read this list, picture R2D2 or the Six Million Dollar Man.

  • A small laptop computer worn in a backpack.
  • A tracking chip.
  • Additional sensors including GPS (global positioning system).
  • A digital compass.
  • Special headphones called bone phones.

Beebeebooboobeebeeboobeeboobeeboobeebuzz. Just picture that array of technology walking down the street, and all of it necessary just to navigate. God forbid you want to carry anything else.

We already draw stares just by walking with canes or dogs. This will make people gawk! Gawk, point, and stand far, far away. No one will approach us to talk to us because it will look like we’re in our own little world. Can you imagine trying to go through airport security with that get-up on? I can see it all now. “just a second sir while I unstrap my arsenal of gizmos. No sir, I’m not trying to blow up the plane! Honest, I’m not a suicide bomber! That’s not a detonator pack for Christ’s sake! Can’t you see I’m blind? Oh yeah, probably not because you can’t see my face for all this technology! Now where’s the gate?” Beebeebooboobeebeeboobeeboobeeboobeebuzz.

Can you imagine what would happen whenever you walked into a store? Oh lord the shoplifting alarms would have a hissy fit!

This reminds me of the other gadgets, gizmos and thingamabobs that people have designed over the years. My earliest memory of one of these things was something called the sonic guide. It consisted of something that went over my ears. When I try to find descriptions of it now, it talks about something that was like a pair of glasses. My memories of it were of it feeling like a giant helmet, but I was only 3. It beeped in my ears. Looking back on it, I remember feeling like my head had been encased in a box that you’d use to ship something somewhere. Tightly packed in foam. I guess that was supposed to hold the sound in. IT would beep louder as you got closer to objects. It wasn’t very good outside because of the open spaces. But in any case, I felt completely cut off from the world, and I think this was the point when my parents realized that replacing my sight with something else was not going to work, and we just had to adapt. I’m glad they didn’t push on with this sonic guide thing, because apparently this beeping box cost quite a chunk of change and needed to be on a service plan because it needed frequent repairs.

Then there was the cane with the laser in it. Real good until you smacked into something at a good clip and broke the technology.

Some things, like the travel mate, I can see as kind of good for people who have hearing problems too. As far as I understand, you clip it to your belt and it vibrates to let you know when something is blocking your way, and some people who have significant vision and hearing loss use it to follow people in line, detect overhead branches, etc. But it’s not trying to do the whole sight shebang. It just notices when something is coming up in front of you, and it augments what you already are using.

And then there was this glove designed by someone at the University of Guelph. You wore a couple of cameras on your chest, a computer, and one glove with vibrating motors sewn into it. The cameras would be able to detect objects up to 10 Metres away and send a signal to the motors. The closer the object, the more intense the vibrations. This made me wonder if you would constantly be feeling these vibrating sensations wherever you went. A lot of objects could be detected in a 10-metre radius. I was a subject testing how easily it was to detect differences in vibration intensity, and at the end of the study, my finger was numb! I think at one point, I had to ask her to stop because I didn’t think I could give her accurate feedback anymore because the feeling in my finger had gone all funny. Would you want that all the time, wherever you were going?

I really appreciate all the efforts that various people have made to design us synthetic eyes. It’s very cool. But replacing what is an evolved human sense with technology just isn’t practical. It’s cumbersome. It’s far too prone to being made unreliable by things. It’s expensive. Sometimes, simple is just better. Take a cane. You go tap, tap, tap, bump, tap, tap, tap. Even a dog is simpler because the dog has eyes that already see, for the purposes of navigation, like a human’s. It just has to be trained. I think, of all the senses that you could choose to synthesize, vision is the hardest. Hell, no other sense got a whole chapter of my first-year psych textbook dedicated to it, but vision did.

They say they might make this into something that you can put into a cell phone. Maybe, then, it might be ok. But until then, I’ll pass on the android outfit, thanks.

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