This Handheld Device Will Help the Blind Echolocate

Ausion alerts the user of any obstacle within a three-meter radius and indicates how far it is using musical notes.

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Jul 20 2015, 1:08pm

Ausion. Image courtesy Innovation Hub Technologies

Some blind people have learned to navigate their surroundings using echolocation, the technique of bouncing sound off of objects to determine their location, often by making clicking noises with the tongue. Echolocation allows the visually-impaired to walk down the street without assistance, and, in some cases, even ride a bike.

The ability is almost like a superpower, but it's relatively rare. However, a new device that uses musical notes to help the visually-impaired get a sense of their surroundings could make it easy for anyone to start echolocating.

Bangalore based Innovation Hub Technologies (IHT), co-founded by engineers Vinod Deshmukh and SN Padmanabhan, has spent three years developing Ausion, a device that weighs 95 grams and resembles a bulky mobile phone with earbuds.

When activated, Ausion alerts the user of any obstacle within a three-meter radius and indicates how far it is using musical notes. The device uses sa-re-ga-ma-pa,the Indian version of solfège (think do-re-mi from The Sound of Music). In 2012, India at the time was home to 7.8 million blind people, according to the Delhi Ophthalmological Society.

"The messages are coded as musical notes and the blind person only needs to get trained on how the device works," Deshmukh said. "We wanted it to be simple and easy to use."

In a demo given to reporters, I found the device fairly intuitive. Tonal differences reflected depth, for example—you'd get different sounds when you pointed it at a pothole, for example, versus a protrusion or obstacle.

The tones used by Ausion to help the blind echolocate.

The team worked with students and teachers at blind schools to develop the product. It took over a year to get to a prototype that could be tested in the field. Now, Ausion has received positive feedback from close to 30 users who have tested it, the company says.

IHT has produced 500 units in its Mysore manufacturing plant. The device will be priced at 3500 rupees (about $55 USD). The first batch will be distributed through a social organization to schools in and around Bangalore, the company says, with a wider release planned for mid-August.