Using our smartphones on the go is easy. We do it all the time: texting while walking, taking selfies, and on. It's as if we are being sucked into our screens while their faint, blue glow illuminates the contours of our face. But, it isn't so easy for the visually impaired, especially while using a white cane and a mobile screen reader. The solution? A new handle for the white cane with an embedded Bluetooth remote that controls both Android and iOS screen readers.
The project had these specific goals:
Design an ergonomic cane handle that fits a majority of hand sizes
Minimize the size and cost of electronic parts for the Bluetooth remote
Make the remote unit modular so it can be used in various future settings (e.g. clipped to a belt, attached to the harness of a guide dog, etc.)
We began by sketching some ideas on paper, but quickly realized that for a physical product, we would need some physical sketching tools. That's when we turned to clay.
Prototyping with clay was great; it brought me back to my Playdoh days. But, it was ineffective here since any ideas we created were optimal for only our hands, not for the 5th to 95th percentile hand size as is standard in Industrial Design.
Consult the Experts
After consulting with an Industrial Design professor about the ergonomics of medical devices, I applied published research on optimal parameters for handle design. This is what I designed to assure maximum surface contact:
Here's a time-lapse video of my design process in Fusion 360:
Generally when designing around electronic components, their dimensions dictate the size of the final product. So, in order to remain unconstricted, we needed to move forward with our 2nd goal: minimize the size and cost of the electronics.
We discovered a tiny Bluetooth module from Adafruit Electronics (~ $30) that could act as a Bluetooth remote with iOS.
It featured a GUI that allowed us to map the buttons to specific VoiceOver gestures in iOS.
Now that we know it works, next steps are getting custom PCBs made and user testing with visually impaired users.
Industrial design is tightly linked with Human Factors. There is always research out there, and should be consulted.
Clay is by far one of the best physical prototyping tools to imagine new shapes, quickly.
Design of non-visual affordances adopts principles of UI Design. The buttons on a remote are just as much an interface as a mobile app to pause your laundry machine.