Open Source Sensory Substitution Device
The Unfolding Space Glove allows blind or visually impaired users to haptically sense the depth of their surrounding space and thus (hopefully) better navigate through it. The device was drafted and developed within the framework of a four-year design research project. In 2021, the prototype was tested in an empirical study with 14 sighted and blind subjects with the results being published.
Substituting missing visual stimuli by means of another sensory modality is referred to as Sensory Substitution in scientific terminology. The code and all components of the project have been released to the public under an Open Source licence. Depending on the field and audience, however, the device can have other labels as well:
A depth image from a 3d camera is haptically projected on the back of the hand by using vibration motors. The location of a vibration depicts an object’s relative position in space, the strength of the vibration represents its distance. See the demo video on the right for better understanding.
There is a multitude of projects that have dealt with the topic of Sensory Substitution, but to date there are only very few practical implementations of the idea, which in turn are used by a negligible small number of people. While extremely sophisticated technology is used, design and user-friendliness often suffer. I therefore started researching the topic in an open and iterative rapid prototyping process. Problems of existing solutions should be included, the operation and learning should be easier and a higher acceptance for the system should be created by addressing usability and interaction design requirements.
Current Prototype & Empiric Study in 2021
Over the years, several prototype versions were created, up to the current version presented here. In the summer of 2021, I was able to test it in an empirical study with 14 blind and sighted test persons as part of my master’s thesis. As expected, it turned out that the path to a practical aid for blind people is still long – nevertheless, the study revealed a number of aspects that the Unfolding Space Glove already meets or which are valuable for further developments. Also see section “Publication” for further Details and a link to the paper.
The Prototype now consists of only three components: a 5V USB power bank, a USB-C power cable and the glove itself hosting a mini computer and the 3D camera.
Once those three are connected you are ready to go:
- External hardware or specific premises are no longer required.
- Runs indoor and outdoor.
- No need specific lighting conditions.
- A single battery charge holds around eight hours.
Total component costs are about $ 500. For an overview, see the pictures on the left. For details, parts lists and building instructions, please go to the GitHub repo linked below.
Future of the Project
After four years of active development, I will let this project rest due to lack of time and money. Of course, questions, tips or feedback are always welcome and maybe the project will continue with or without me at another time. That would make me really happy – the foundation stone has been laid, all the data is open.
As mentioned I conducted a study about the Unfolding Space Glove in summer 2021. A paper about this study is expected to be published soon. You can already read the abstract below:
This paper documents the design, implementation and evaluation of the Unfolding Space Glove—an open source sensory substitution device. It transmits the relative position and distance of nearby objects as vibratory stimuli to the back of the hand and thus enables blind people to haptically explore the depth of their surrounding space, assisting with navigation tasks such as object recognition and wayfinding. The prototype requires no external hardware, is highly portable, operates in all lighting conditions, and provides continuous and immediate feedback—all while being visually unobtrusive. Both blind (n = 8) and blindfolded sighted participants (n = 6) completed structured training and obstacle courses with both the prototype and a white long cane to allow performance comparisons to be drawn between them. The subjects quickly learned how to use the glove and successfully completed all of the trials, though still being slower with it than with the cane. Qualitative interviews revealed a high level of usability and user experience. Overall, the results indicate the general processability of spatial information through sensory substitution using haptic, vibrotactile interfaces. Further research would be required to evaluate the prototype’s capabilities after extensive training and to derive a fully functional navigation aid from its features.
Code and Content
In order to inspire other designers, developers or commercial providers to work within this field and to make Sensory Substitution available to as many people as possible this project is Open Source. All contents are under CC-BY-4.0 license, the code is under MIT license. Please check the LICENSE files in the respective repositories. This website hosts general information about the project. Please find all components, files, documentation and publications related to this project at the locations linked below:
- 14.09.19 – Designboom: Unfolding space by jakob kilian lets the visually impaired ‘see’ with their hands
- 14.09.19 – Hackster.io: Unfolding Space Allows the Blind to See with Their Hands
- [german] 26.10.18 – Deutschlandfunk: Kölner Design Preis | Auszeichung für „sehenden“ Handschuh
- [german] 26.10.18 – Deutschlandfunk Nova: Student entwickelt sehenden Handschuh
- [german] 26.10.18 – Informationsdienst Wissenschaft: Kölner Design Preis 2018: Erster und dritter Platz für KISD-Absolventen
- [german] 26.10.18 – WDR Kultur: Kölner Designpreis für Sehhilfe
- [german] 26.10.18 – MeineSüdstadt: Kölner Design Preis geht in die Südstadt
- [german] 05.11.18 – barrierefrei bauen:Kölner Designpreis geht an “Unfolding Space”
- [german] 17.11.18 – Koelncampus: Ein Handschuh für mehr Inklusion
- [german] 01.12.18 – handicap.life: Mit den Händen sehen – das Projekt Unfolding Space
- [german] 18.03.19 – Beitrag in der Sendung “Lokalzeit” des WDR
- [chinese] 18.09.19 – 36kr.com: 戴上这个手套，视障人士就能「用手看见」了
- [chinese] 25.09.19 – ifeng.com: 创新前沿 | “橙汁杯子橙皮做”等三个创新案例
- [arabic] 26.09.19 – gulf365.co:فيديو-صور| “jakob kilian” يتيح لضعاف البصر رؤية الأشياء بأيديهم
The project wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many people, to whom I would like to express a big thank you at this point:
Kjell Wistoff for his active support in setting up, dismantling and rebuilding the study room, organising the documents and documenting the study photographically.
Trainer Regina Beschta for a free introductory O&M course and the loan of the study long cane.
Tim Becker and Matthias Krauß from Press Every Key for their open ear when giving advice on software and hardware.
Köln International School of Design/KISD (TH Köln) and the responsible parties for making the premises available over this long period of time.
And all those who provided guidance in the development of the prototype over the past years and now in the implementation and evaluation of the study. Specifically (and probably more that I can not remember at this point):
Jannik Nitz, Connor Shafran, Johanna Warchol, Marco Reitano, Brandon Gilles, Niklas Isselburg, Eduard Paal, Dmitry Kuznetsov, Sebastian Miller, Sören Stirn, Ronnie Balcazar
Hardware sponsoring was granted by: