As more and more devices receive an increasing degree of intelligence, this project exemplarily proposes the use of smart surfaces for the transmission of explicit information. Applied to the mobility problems of visually impaired people, the Sense Five white cane utilises a surface changing structure to haptically communicate environmental information to the user. It encourages the use of the human sense of touch and thus frees the other senses.
Project assistant: Tim Schütze
The design focus of this project is on the development of a smart, responsive surface material that can be used to open up new ways of communication and interaction. This is based on the idea that with the ever-increasing availability of data, other human senses beyond the senses of sight and hearing can be used to perceive information. Beyond this perception, materials and haptics significantly influence the way we relate to our everyday products and are therefore of ever-growing importance.
In the iterative design process, methods of parametric design and rapid prototyping were combined to approach dynamic materials. By cutting, perforating or FDM printing on different materials, structures of different Poisson ratios were tested and compared.
As both functional and ergonomic geometry, a cylinder is ideal for activating the responsive material in grip applications. The change of surface from smooth to rough is controlled by a simple rotation mechanism. After structural optimization with various paper models, the geometry was also successfully tested with a model made of durable polyamide produced using the SLS printing process.
To evaluate both the functionality and the shape of the smart grip for white canes, several mock-ups and prototypes were created. The use of mechanical components, sensors and microcontrollers allowed to realistically test the usability and user experience.
Sense Five is an intelligent white cane that transmits information about the immediate surroundings via the surface structure of the handle. The haptic feedback is particularly intuitive and enables visually impaired people to have a redirected perception of their situation. Thus, every moment can be enjoyed with a high degree of mobility.
The integrated ultrasonic sensor detects obstacles within a distance of 5 meters and is specially designed for waist-high obstacles that cannot be detected with conventional canes. It also recognizes fast-moving objects such as cars that normally pose a danger to visually impaired people. The environment information is processed in real-time and passed on to the user as surface changes to the handle. Using different rhythms and intensities, a differentiated and pleasant communication is possible, which uses the human sense of touch and thus frees the remaining senses.
As a reliable mobility aid, an explicit on and off switch is essential. Users with visual impairments must be able to check the on-state at any time. The switch is therefore designed in such a way that the cane is only positioned ergonomically in the hand when switched on and serves as a stop to position the handle safely. To change states, it only needs to be moved up or down. Low energy LEDs switch on automatically in the dark and guarantee clear visibility for other road users.
Sense Five regularly indicates the state of charge by a certain surface change. If the charge level is low, the integrated USB-C port allows charging on the road through power banks, public power outlets, etc. Back home it is charged with the wall mount, which also serves as a recognizable storage location, ensuring a reliable orientation and good accessibility.
With its newly conceived shape Sense Five stands out from conventional white canes. Thanks to the angled handle it lies ergonomically in the natural hand position and is optimally balanced with the arrangement of the inner components. The sensor is always correctly aligned due to the clear handle position.
The video shows the iterative design process from research, ideation and prototyping to UX-testing.