Harvard Students Design Haptic Feedback Vest to Direct People With Limited Vision

This vest-like wearable is designed to help visually impaired and partially-sighted people navigate with ease.
Deniz Yildiran

The wearable tech industry is constantly developing to make everyone’s lives easier, especially in the medical field. From heartbeat analyzing bands to tumor detecting bras, the wearables are here to serve desperately desired purposes. This particular one is designed to help people with limited vision.

Students from Harvard recently developed a wearable device for visually-impaired and partially-sighted people to navigate more easily. 

A sense of ease

By launching their startup called Foresight, students managed to design a vest-like wearable. They used advanced levels of computer vision technology and soft robotics that connect to the user's smartphone camera, which is placed below their neck on the vest-like wearable. Basically, the camera tells the user where the objects are, and this information is then delivered to the vest that inflates to provide haptic feedback.

As many wearable devices use vibration to communicate with users, this new device takes it to the next level and presents a feeling of comfort by inflating.  

“Most wearable navigation aids rely on vibrating motors, which can be uncomfortable and bothersome to users,” explained Anirban Ghosh, one of the students. Hence their design turns out to be "more comfortable" and it can "provide the same tactile information” as a vibrating wearable does.


How it works

The vest inflates to put pressure on the user's body, according to the distance between the object and the user. Detecting objects around can be achieved by a computer vision algorithm.

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“The software traces a bounding box around each object it ‘sees’ and by calibrating the ratios of that bounding box, the software can estimate how far an object is from the camera, and how quickly it is moving,” indicated Milan Wilborn, materials science and mechanical engineering Ph.D. student.

Foresight is simple and adoptable to reach more people and make their lives easier. 

The startup and its students won the Innovation Award of 2020 Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge, which is described as a "call to action for ideas that make a difference." 

Still, this will not be the last version of the vest-like wearable as the students are reviewing some details related to the software and the sensors to test more prototypes on more users. 

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