Way back in the dark ages, back in the time of dinosaurs, around 1990 or so, I first got involved with assistive technologies. I was a young, enthusiastic electronics technician who was tickled pink to get away from fixing photocopiers and work on some very weird technologies that few people had even heard of. Most were products that had been developed by Telesensory or VTEK but after a while, when people learned there was an electronics tech who was fixing assistive technology, other items would show up that had been sourced elsewhere but needed fixing.
One customer introduced me to one of the earliest ultrasonic devices designed to assist with navigation, a Moat sensor. It was a head worn system, produced in either New Zealand or Australia, I don’t recall which now. Possibly I lost that memory falling from a dinosaur. It had a set of ultrasonic emitters and receivers and it would vibrate to provide feedback on how far you were from an object. As you got closer to an object the vibration would increase.
In 1990 this wasn’t even new. The technology had been around since the early 1970s but it never developed that large a user base in Canada. It was not intended to be a substitute for a cane, a guide dog or good orientation and mobility skills, it was just a tool to provide supplemental information about a persons surroundings.
Over the years a number of devices were developed that served a similar purpose. I remember for a while selling one called the Handguide. The device worked in a similar fashion but was handheld and used infrared instead of ultrasonic sensing. It never developed much of a following either. The main complaint I heard from clients were that they didn’t like that it was handheld. If you were using a cane or walking with a dog it wasn’t ideal to tie up your one free hand. Also infrared could shine right through a pane of glass which could prove problematic if you relied too heavily on the Handguide for moving around.
As time has gone on other devices have hit the market. A current product, the BuzzClip from iMerciv is on the market. This unit is designed to clip onto clothing or be handheld. The complaint I’ve heard from Canadians about this product is that if you are trying to use it in winter weather, while wearing a heavy coat, you can’t feel the vibrations through the coat. So you’re essentially forced to hand hold it and again you’re tying up your free hand.
Then I stumbled across the SUNU band. The SUNU band is worn as a wrist watch. In fact it also is a wrist watch and a whole lot more. When the SUNU band is strapped to your wrist, the sensor is pointing in roughly the same direction as your thumb. To “look around” with it you simply turn your wrist. Your hand remains free to hold your bag of Tim Bits. In terms of design it’s about the best arrangement I’ve seen for this type of technology. However it’s not the 1990s any more and we can now pack a whole lot of electronics into a small package. So the SUNU contains a whole bunch of other tech as well.
The top of the SUNU band is a touch pad. There are also two buttons on the side for switching functions. The SUNU can also connect via Bluetooth to an Android or iOS device and has a companion app that adds even more features. The app is also under constant redevelopment to add new features which any SUNU user will get updated for free.
SUNU has two modes for obstacle detection, one designed for indoor use and one designed for outdoor use. You can switch between these modes with or without the companion app, however the app will also let you fine tune the range it will sense and the width of the detection area. For each mode you can adjust the detection range between 1 and 16 feet with nine stages of narrow to wide detection.
The app also lets you adjust the intensity of the vibration from the SUNU band so you can tailor it to how you like it.
The app has a voice service option you can turn off or on that will tell you what is happening when you interact with your SUNU.
The clock feature on the SUNU uses vibrations to indicate the time. When you swipe in one direction it vibrates to indicate the number of the hour. When you swipe in the opposite direction it vibrates to tell you the minutes. If you are using the app it will also voice the time on your phone.
You can set alarms via the app. Multiple alarms can be set. You can name them, set them for multiple days, choose a vibration pattern for when they go off and you can choose to allow a snooze option or not.
There is a compass feature you can access via the app as well. Simply point in front of you and turn and the app will announce the direction as you turn.
Also included is a place finder feature that ties into your devices map feature. You can turn on or off different place types such as shopping malls, cafes, drug stores subway stations and more. Like the compass, when you point in the direction of one of the services you will get a vibration when you are pointing in the right direction. The distance for searching can also be selected via the app settings.
There is even a pedometer feature with which you can set your desired daily step target and get feedback when you’ve met your goal.
We’ve come a long way since the 1990s. I think my dinosaur would have been impressed.