The proximity hat informs the wearer about objects in the surroundings through changing pressure

Proximity hat lets blind people 'feel' spaces

A hat fitted with ultrasonic sensors that provide the sense of proximity to physical objects could help blind people to better navigate in interiors.

The hat, developed by researchers from the Karslruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, uses its sensors to measure the distance from the surrounding objects in real time and translates the information into pressure through special pads attached to the wearer’s head.

The researchers behind the invention believe pressure provides a clearer idea of the surroundings than sounds or vibrations – the system does not overload other senses like vision and hearing by too much input.

“So far, seeing and hearing have been in the focus for transmitting digitally measured information to users,” said KIT’s Professor Michael Beigl. “Work on the proximity hat shows that information can also be transmitted by pressure.”

The hat, designed by architect Florian Braun as part of his bachelor’s thesis, contains six modules with ultrasonic sensors scanning the surrounding space in all horizontal directions. The sensors can detect objects in the distance anywhere between a few centimetres to several metres.

The sensor modules, 25 square centimetres in size, make up to 50 measurements per second. Based on the data received, the pads adjust the amount of pressure applied to the wearer's head based on the distance – the closer the wearer is to the object, the more pressure. This way, the researchers believe, the blind person could best be alerted to an imminent risk of collision.

The proximity hat might also be integrated into helmets of firemen to improve their orientation in smoke-filled rooms.

The hat has been developed as part of an EU funded Prosperity4All project that ends in 2017. The project’s goal is to reduce barriers for people with disabilities, literacy, digital literacy and ageing through digital technology.

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