RICHARDSON — The white cane is the standard for mobility in the blind community. For generations, it has represented something precious: Independence.
"I'll put (my cane) out in front of me and I'm able to feel any cracks in the sidewalk with it," said Blake Lindsay, a spokesperson at Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind.
But could a shoe — loaded down with a bird's nest of wires, circuit boards and sensors — replace the time-tested white cane?
Dr. Dinesh Bhatia supervised a group of students trying to answer that question at the University of Texas at Dallas.
"This is an aid that gives them signals — in advance — where the obstacle is. And then they will navigate, Bhatia said, examining the shoe.
When the shoe approaches an obstacle, the nearest sensor begins to vibrate. The closer the obstacle, the faster the vibration.
How does it work?
It's similar to the backup sensors in a car which emit small sound waves. When the sound bounces back, the car can calculate how far away an obstacle is.
"When I'm using the shoes I can see around me, behind me," explained Laura Shagman, one of the students on the design team.
The main design objective of the shoes was to eliminate the need for a cane, so a user has both hands free to feel what's in front of them.
"Yes that would be nice," said Blake Lindsay. "I usually just take my left hand do that, but it would be nice to be able to have both hands."
If the idea sticks, Bhatia promised that the geeky look of the sensor shoes can certainly be improved. "What you are seeing is a prototype built by using off-the-shelf components," he said.
But right now, this is about more than appearance; it's about a group of students who had an idea to leave the world better than they found it.
And they just might do it.
"If someone were to wear these shoes besides me, that would be great," Shagman said.