I’ve been slow at getting this one up here, but I might as well do it now.
Someone else has decided to build a smart cane. It’s called WeWalk, and it’s supposed to make your cane even more awesome. Since I always get a little suspicious when people start putting high tech stuff in a low tech solution, I had to look.
First off, the main site isn’t very informative. I’m going to hope it’s because the folks who wrote it don’t speak much English, so they went light on the words and heavy on the pictures, but heavily relying on pictures for a device for blind people doesn’t seem like a good idea. But there is part of me that thinks they aimed that site primarily at donors, and somehow thought those donors would not include blind people. Referring to us as “the target group” doesn’t send a good message.
One sentence that did make me laugh was this one: “*Only Cane with Sound Notification”
Uh, guys? Every cane has sound notifications. Tap, clunk, bonk, clang, sploosh. Those are all notifications of what you might encounter, and they’re sound. A sentence like that kind of destroys credibility, at least for me.
Since I couldn’t discern much from their actual website more than it being a smart cane that can interface with other apps, I went looking around and found a more informative article.
I also found a video, which informed me that Dr. Oz is involved. Hmmm.
The WeWALK consists mainly of an electronic handle, with a regular “analog” white cane inserted into the bottom.
While the tip of that conventional cane is used to detect ground-level obstacles, head-level obstructions get pinged by ultrasound pulses emitted by the WeWALK. Whenever such hazards are detected, the device lets the user know by buzzing their hand through either of two (left or right) vibration buttons.
There’s also a front LED to help partially-sighted users see in the dark, along with a touchpad, which can be used to remotely operate a Bluetooth-connected iOS or Android smartphone. This phone connectivity means that users can utilize the WeWALK’s built-in speakers to receive verbal directional cues from supported apps such as Google Maps, or use its near-field mic to confer with Amazon Alexa, which is also supported. Additionally, because the technology is built around an open platform, third-party developers could add their own smartphone-based functions down the road.
One USB charge of the battery should be good for up to five hours of use.
Ok, now that we know what it is and what it does, let’s talk about some good and bad things about it.
I’m glad it doesn’t require a whole heap of extra devices, and that a regular cane is fitted into the fancy handle, so the regular cane is taking all the bangs and clangs, not the electronics. I’m relieved that if the battery dies, you can still use your cane as a cane. You just won’t have all the bells and whistles. I also appreciate what they’re doing with detecting overhead obstacles. That is definitely a problem that the cane has.
Maybe I would have to actually see one, but I don’t quite get the idea that it would be easier to manipulate my smart phone from my cane. I would still have to stop moving to screw with it.
Also, how much stuff is coming from my phone and how much is integrated into the WeWalk? Could I leave my phone at home and set off with the WeWalk and plan a route to the store solely on the WeWalk? If so, where does it get its data from? Or, is the WeWalk just acting like a glorified Bluetooth keyboard, taking all its awesome power from the phone? If so, how can these apps be called integrations with WeWalk?
On the flip side, what is the point of connecting my phone to the WeWalk by bluetooth? Is it only to be able to control the phone and do things like send text messages from the cane without taking the phone out of my pocket? Does it do anything else? Why would I want to drain two devices at once if either, on their own, does the job?
On a side note, how big is this touchpad? I can’t envision how a touchpad would fit easily on a cane handle without me bonking it as I’m just using the cane. But of course, I’m saying this without seeing one.
Have they tackled the problem that some devices have with draining the battery faster in the cold? At least with a bluetooth headset, I can mainly keep my phone warm. I couldn’t keep my cane warm.
My final worries are with cost and repairs. I couldn’t bring myself to pay $500 for a cane, especially since a bunch of the stuff it’s doing is already being done by a smartphone. Plus, if it needed repairs, could I take the basic cane out of it before sending the handle back? This very well could be the case, but I would want to know this.
I guess my thoughts are maybe it has some potential, but I still have a lot of questions.