The classic white cane used by the visually impaired is an excellent device for avoiding obstacles up to knee height, but they offer little to no protection in the face of obstructions between knee and head height, such as tree branches or protrusions from the walls of buildings. Now, AssisTech, based in New Delhi, India, has unveiled a new $50 travel aid to help the visually impaired safely navigate the world. SmartCane, an attractive extension device made to complement the traditional white walking stick, uses sonor to indicate through vibrations whether objects are ahead and which way to turn in order to avoid them.

The way it works is this: SmartCane sensors transmit and receive ultrasonic waves, the sound waves occurring at a frequency beyond the range of human hearing. When an obstacle blocks the path of these waves, they bounce back and are detected by the sensor. In response, the device produces vibrations to indicate to the user of the SmartCane the presence of the obstruction. SmartCane is attached to the traditional white walking stick and is powered using rechargeable battery similar to those in a cell phone. It can be used in both indoor and outdoor navigation modes and has been designed to accommodate varying types of hand grips which are commonly used by visually challenged people. Most importantly, SmartCane is lightweight (total weight of only 132 grams) and so most visually impaired people, with practice, will be able to easily adjust to it.

SmartCane can also be used without attaching it to a white cane; the device will still detect obstacles which appear within the ultrasonic cone range, though it will not detect obstacles below the knee-level. For this reason AssisTech recommends it always be used with a walking stick. In their premarket testing, the company has found that, after a few days of use and adaptation, many users discover SmartCane reduces their travel time when compared to the usual white cane.

The company has provided a few caveats. For instance, because SmartCane is so sensitive, it may vibrate during a heavy rain. The device also will not be able to detect changes in surface levels, such as staircases. Finally, a fully charged battery lasts for quite some time, but can only endure eight hours of continuous use.

“Usually, after 3 to 4 weeks of regular use you can become a fully confident SmartCane user,” the company’s website states. This YouTube video of a visually impaired user provides a first-hand perspective on SmartCane: