A 'Smart Stick' Puts The Internet of Everything In Service To The Blind

An innovative startup in France, is building solutions to help a unique population: the visually impaired.
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From picture-sharing to localized taxi-ordering, products that know where you are and connect to high-speed networks have hit the market. Companies are developing all sorts of mobile applications that combine location and data to solve everyday inconveniences for people. A group of Cisco France employees involved in Corporate Social Responsibility hoped to stimulate innovation in France and support the GenY entrepreneurial spirit through a competitive contest and employee mentorship. They launched Le Défi Cisco, a challenge to apply technology to social and environmental issues. An innovative startup in Nancy, France, is building solutions to help a unique population: the visually impaired.

Moving around a city is simple for most us. Is the crossing light red? Just look up and see. When is the next tram? Have a look at the display. Where is the entrance to this shop? But when you are visually impaired, none of these options are available to you. Handisco, a startup with big ambitions, hopes to give autonomy to visually impaired people by applying the Internet of Everything (IoE) to the white cane. The connected cane could communicate when a light is red or green, when the next tram is coming, and which way to travel.

IoE is the connection of "dumb" devices to a network in order to make them available to other systems. The use of standard communication protocols will enable more developers to use data without specific implementation or hardware as required by today's proprietary formats.

To succeed, Handisco needs to solve three problems: communicating with the environment (identifying precisely where you are), collecting the data (gathering all data available), and connecting it in an accessible way.

Communicate with the environment

Finding a store by street address is not so hard, but locating the actual entrance is tricky. Handisco plans to use beacon technologies to detect the entrance of a shopping mall or restaurant. Beacons such as the iBeacon from Apple are fixed elements that send out a low-energy Bluetooth signal to enable applications to know where they are. The Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) is running an experiment using beacon technology in the London Subway.

To use the beacons, Handisco would need shop owners and municipalities to install the off-the-shelf product. Until beacons are more widespread, the company plans to use spatial triangulation to provide precise location information.

Collect the data

Once the device knows where it is, it can collect real-time data to inform the user. What are the store hours? What does the store sell? Finding the crossing path is useful, but is the light red or green? Is construction in the road blocking the crossing path?

Most of this data exists, but is either licensed or not available to the public. The rise of Open Data, free data in a standard format, enables software developers to consume the data and build on it. To find out where the bus stops are, download a city's KML file and open it in Google Earth:


Software can also understand this format and use APIs (Application Programming Interface) to gather real-time data. Some examples of Open Data in France:

Handisco is testing their solution using data from the city of Nancy, France.

Connect it together

With location and environmental information, a large amount of data must be processed and transmitted to the user. The next challenge is to build a mobile device that will be easy to use, light and reliable, and a backend system to enable processing of all this data.

To get into the shoes of their users and understand their requirements, Handisco is working closely with partners like the Association Valentin Hauy, an organization for the blind and visually impaired in Nancy. They are also exploring solutions such as Vibrating Shoes to connect to the stick and guide people.

We're at the beginning of a new era, where our devices become completely aware of our environment. This era will enable the creation of new application to help all kind of peoples.

Hundreds of startups have new ideas every day, but very few are doing anything like this. It's a true example of applying the Internet of Everything for social good. Handisco takes a dumb device and makes it smart by connecting it to all the other data and devices around it, making a real difference in the lives of those who will use it.

To find out more information about the story of Handisco's evolution, please visit: http://csr.cisco.com/casestudy/social-innovation-in-france.