Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Usability and Design Guidelines of Smart Canes for Users with Visual Impairments

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Usability and Design Guidelines of Smart Canes for Users with Visual Impairments

Article excerpt


The percentage of the population with visual impairments is increasing rapidly. Every year, the number of visually impaired people grows by up to 2 million worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2011) estimates that there are 39 million blind people and 246 million visually impaired people internationally. In addition, visual impairments are closely associated with aging. About 65% of the visually impaired are 50 years of age or older, with about 20% of the world's population in this age group (WHO, 2011). In Europe, in particular, about 90% of visually impaired and partially sighted people are over the age of 60.

One of the most severe difficulties for the visually impaired is safe independent mobility. Having independent mobility is a significant factor in ensuring that this aging group can perform simple daily tasks without depending on others. Clark-Carter (1985) indicates that visually impaired people have a low level of mobility. Further, a recent survey in France revealed that only 2% of the overall visually impaired population uses mobility aids (Sander, Lelievre, & Tallec, 2005). One model of an independent mobility aid for the visually impaired is the traditional white cane, which is inexpensive, lightweight and foldable. Unfortunately, white cane users have difficulty detecting protruding bars or moving vehicles until they are dangerously close, which can lead to collisions and falls. The limited capability of the white cane corresponds to its length and a user's maneuvering skills. As such, users rarely detect overhanging obstacles at head-level or ranges further than approximately 1 m from the user. Manduchi and Kurniawan (2011) report in a recent survey of 300 visually impaired people that over 40% of the respondents experienced head-level accidents at least once a month. Further, Clark-Carter (1985) found that visually impaired people were shown to be potentially dangerous when using a white cane.

To address these difficulties, many "smart" products for the visually impaired have been introduced in the last four decades, including smart canes and handheld or wearable devices that are equipped with a sensor system. A smart cane offers an improvement over a traditional white cane because it has the ability to detect objects above the cane and up to a range of 2 m away using an ultrasonic sensor. A white cane allows objects to be sensed through touch and echolocation from tapping. A smart cane has the same capabilities, except that it uses vibrotactile information and produces vibration alerts for obstacles in front of the user.

However, these smart products have not been successfully adopted and used by a large number of visually impaired people (Roentgen, Gelderblom, Soede, & de Witte, 2008). Several researchers have attributed this limited use to high prices (Abdel-Wahab & El-Masry, 2011; Mau, Melchior, Makatchev, & Steinfeld, 2008), or poor user interface and design (Lacey, Dawson-Howe, & Vernon, 1995). In addition, using quantitative measures (Manduchi et al., 2010), studies have examined the usability of smart mobility devices based on technical systems (Garg et al., 2007; Yen, 1996), addressing issues related to orientation, navigation, safety, mobility, speed and the optimization of techniques. Despite efforts to design a better electronic mobility aid over the past 40 years replacing the traditional white cane with a more functional option has been unsuccessful. Roentgen et al. (2008) argue that the available electronic mobility aids still do not fully meet the needs of the visually impaired.

The goal of this research was to identify the needs of visually impaired users and generate design guidelines for smart canes for users with visual impairments. We sought to identify the most crucial categories of design issues for smart canes by considering cognitive and functional capabilities, as described later. The study used performance tasks and interviews as the basis for the design guidelines for the smart cane, which revealed the areas that need improvement with regard to their primary function. …

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