In my MSc graduation project I was exploring the experience and the emotions surrounding the white cane, the most typical assistive device used by visually impaired people. The final concept is a system consisting of an enhanced white cane, a network of information nodes embedded in the existing guidelines and a cloud database to enable the sharing of navigational know-how in the cane walker community. I kicked off the project with a 3 month research project, where I used a variety of qualitative research methods to create a deeper understanding. During the design phase I followed an iterative approach, using several prototypes to quickly test ideas.
The aim of the Dot Bot project is to make it possible for visually impaired people to regain control over their image in the social setting. To enable them to show competence when that is their intention and only appear vulnerable when they do mean to.
To move around independently, sighted people rely strongly on the visual navigation cues provided by our environment. Visually Impaired People (VIPs) are losing a huge deal of independence when they are no longer able to depend on their vision to navigate. This results in the fear of losing control, social isolation, unemployment, financial difficulties and depression.
They turn to mobility aids, like the white cane, to maintain their independence. But the white cane feels unappealing and outdated. Affected by the social stigma, users feel self-conscious with a cane in the hand, some even decide not to use it, despite the mobility limitations resulting from such a decision.
During the research phase I used a variety of methods, like autoethnographic studies, self-observation, participant observation, creative sessions and interviews. Having first-hand experiences and personal contact with the user group a better level of understanding and empathy is reachable, which are serious assets in the design phase. The most important mobility struggles and attitudes concerning mobility aids, but also positive aspects of VIP life and the inherent dilemmas were collected.
Iterations and Validation
During design process, several aspects of the Dot Bot concept were tested with VIP participants. In the first validation session, insights on information needs during navigation were collected. In the second validation session the envisioned interaction and feedback types were evaluated by the help of functional prototypes. An aesthetical prototype was also created to show the envisioned proportions and form of the device.
The Dot Bot is a navigation aid consisting of a cane, a virtual community and a network of information nodes. The information Dots are embedded in the tactile paving, accessible by a white cane. The information is stored in short audio clips, created by the members of the VIP community. Having a platform of sharing impairment specific navigation and commuting know-how, feelings of connectedness and belonging are enhanced.
The way the information is stored and accessed supports this: for the outsider eye accessing information from a road stud on the tactile paving is invisible. I aimed to reduce the need to ask for directions and aid VIPs in cultivating pride and the feeling of competence through exercising their ability to navigate autonomously. The semantic qualities of the cane are preserved, to keep it recognisable therefore keeping cane walkers more safe.