Reporter 449, 20 March 2000

Ultrasound system shows the way

Blind people could be given ‘second sight’, similar to the navigational skills of bats, thanks to a device being developed by University researchers.

Echoes of the future: bats' ultrasound navigation system has inspired a Leeds invention

The ‘spatial imager’, fitted to a walking stick or into a glove, emits ultrasound, which is used by bats to manoeuvre their way around obstacles in the dark. Returning ultrasound waves trigger vibrations in the fingers corresponding to the position of obstructions, providing the user with a tactile map of their environment.

The idea was sparked by a chance conversation between four university researchers - neurophysiologist Deborah Withington, biologist and bat expert Dean Waters, electronics engineer Brian Hoyle and food scientist Malcolm Povey.

"Malcolm was talking about how ultrasound is used in the food industry to detect something as small as a bruise on an apple," said Professor Withington. "I asked whether it could be used in a tactile way."

Professor Withington believes the device would be more effective than the conventional white stick because it could also detect obstacles hung from above. It could also be used to help police divers or the fire brigade working in murky or smoky conditions.

The four researchers have formed a spin-off company, Sound Foresight, to develop the concept further and believe a commercial device could be available within two years.

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