Blog Date: 
Friday, December 11, 2015
Author: 
Amy Mason
Categories: 

The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute leads the quest to understand the real problems of blindness and to develop innovative education, technologies, products, and services that help the world's blind to achieve greater independence. Many technology developers have the best intensions when designing that great next product for the blind. Unfortunately they do not include blind people in the process. We strongly encourage developers of innovative nonvisual access technologies to work with us during the design and development phase. By leveraging the expertise and the life experience of the independent blind with the engineering expertise of these developers of next generation technologies, the result is an innovative, more useful product for the blind.  

Last year we began just such a collaborative relationship with a startup by the name of UStraap. In 2014, we were contacted by one of the project’s creators, Marco Trujillo, and asked to look at his prototype device. Our initial impressions can be seen in a previous AT Blog post about the USTRAAP. To paraphrase, at that time, we believed that the device had promise, and we were excited to see where it was going to go. It has indeed undergone several iterations of changes after extensive testing with blind people, and now goes by the name of Sunu.

In this post we want to share a bit of our interactions with the creators of the Sunu to provide a peak into the workings of the Access Technology Team and how we assist manufacturers in providing useful tools to blind consumers. The following is a brief description and critique of the Sunu Band by Sunu, and a sample of the feedback we were able to provide to the developers. In order to maintain the integrity of their intellectual property, we are only able to provide examples of questions and suggestions that demonstrate, in a small way, the benefit of our collaboration. 

The Sunu Band 

By Sunu

Sunu describes the Sunu Band as a smart-bracelet that uses sonar “look-ahead” technology, empowering mobility and independence for people living with impaired vision by helping improve awareness, orientation, and mobility, which can be used with other aids. The Sunu Band is a wearable bracelet with a sonar sensor, two buttons on the watch face, and an adjustable wristband. The device provides haptic feedback about surroundings to the user. You simply point or scan with the sensor on the device, and the closer you come to a person or object, the more intense the vibrations on your wrist become. There is also a separate Sunu Tag that can be used as a locator device for easily misplaced items. The tag will beep, and the wristband vibrates faster as the two come closer, “rather like a game of ’hot or cold’ with a prize of rediscovering your missing keys.” There are promises of leveraging app integration to create enhanced functionality, and add other features. The one that has already been implemented well enough to be tried by our team is a vibrating watch feature, similar to that offered by the Meteor Vibrating Pocket Watch. We will discuss each of these three features in turn, including our thoughts on how to improve the functionality, and finish with information on where you can go to get your hands on the device if it piques your interest. 

Navigational Aid

The Sunu Band started life as merely a navigational aid intended to provide additional information to cane and dog guide users. As such, this is still the heart of the device and its functionality. The band uses sonar waves to gather information about the user’s surroundings and conveys information on how near the user is to an obstacle by vibrating with increasing frequency as the user nears it. It offers both an outdoor and an indoor navigation mode. Indoor mode uses a narrower band and a shorter range in order to provide more detailed information when a user is in more crowded settings, and may be moving more slowly. In our testing, we found that the Sunu may be useful in a number of indoor and outdoor situations including:
•    Simulating shore-lining technique. For instance, indoors, a user could use the band to search across the hall for openings where the hall turns or open doors. Outdoors, it could be used to search for bus shelters, entrance alcoves for businesses, or other open spaces.
•    Following people in a line. By pointing the band at a person in front of the user in line, they can feel the change in vibrational pattern as the line moves up, without having to search as often for that person with the tip of the cane.
•    Detecting objects at head height. By angling the wrist just a little, it was possible for our testers to discover tree branches and other obstacles that might offer a nasty shock to the traveler. 
It is rather clever in that it provides to cane users some of the foreknowledge of more distant objects enjoyed by dog users, and allows dog users to gather information about the obstacles they are maneuvering around with their guide. 

Sunu states, “It is easy to learn within minutes.” So we put this assertion to the test. Several staff members took the Sunu Band through some basic mobility scenarios. For some the indoor navigation functionality of the device took a little time to acclimate to, while others picked it up very intuitively. In discussions with the developers, they state that although you can learn to operate the device in minutes, it does take more time to master its use. We are hopeful that there are opportunities in the future for us to assist with the development of additional training materials. Our opinion is that it would be a helpful device for individuals to use as a complement to good orientation and mobility skills training.

Of course, when evaluating technologies that provide nonvisual information, there is always a tricky balance between how much is too much information. This is complicated by the fact that what is considered too much information for some may be considered too little information for others. This is why we definitely appreciate the ability to put the Sunu Band in sleep mode with ease. 

The one area of concern with the band as a navigational tool that we noted at this time is that it is easily covered by the sleeve of a winter coat, and may not be as useful in the colder months outdoors. 

Sunu Locator Tag

The tag is a pretty simple concept. A user places the tag on or in a bag, luggage, keys, or other easily-misplaced object. When the user wishes to locate the item, they can either use the wristband or the intended smartphone app to trigger the tag and follow the vibrations of the wristband or audible tones from the tag to help reunite them with their wandering belonging. The additional ability to use the vibrations on the band will hopefully make it possible for a user to silence the tag and find the item in question without alerting others in the area to the search. 

We have been providing on-going support in the development of this technology and were pleased that some improvements have already been made. For example, the Sunu Tag is a much nicer size and shape than the original design, and also works well in our testing with the Sunu Band. We are looking forward to the integration with the app and Bluetooth, which should give it slightly longer range.

Timekeeping

As previously mentioned, the Sunu Band, although referred to as a bracelet, also tells time, like a watch. The original method of obtaining the time was deemed by our testers as a little too conspicuous. We emphasized that many people want to check the time in class, or in a boring meeting, and not let others know they are counting down the minutes. Although this was also input the developers received from others, we were able to give some additional useful feedback on some suggested alternative methods of checking the time. 

We are hopeful that with app integration, alarms may also be included in the device, as the Sunu would prove to be a nicely inconspicuous way to keep track of upcoming appointments, and might even provide an alternative to a loudly buzzing alarm clock. 

Design and Other Thoughts

We found the wireless charging feature of the device to be an interesting alternative to the more familiar USB chargers being used by most technologies. We expressed our disappointment that, in the beta unit, there was no non-visual indication that the products are actually charging. They informed us that they have a strategy for dealing with this in the final version. Moreover, they consulted us on using USB as an alternative option for charging the device. Using USB to directly charge the device may be more familiar to most users and may be more secure, because it is less likely the device will be knocked off its charger. However, USB seems like a possible point of malfunction due to plugging and unplugging the device. USB Micro just doesn’t seem very sturdy and the charging disk would be unplugged a lot less often than the band, which would minimize the wear and tear on the band itself.

In our discussions with Marco, we learned that the folks from Sunu are hoping to add more features via their smartphone app, including some which may work with iBeacon and indoor navigation technology. We are very interested to see what may come of these discussions, and will continue to provide our guidance to the team at Sunu as they continue creating this very versatile and interesting piece of technology. 

Final Thoughts

“Tested and validated” is Sunu’s current claim. As the oldest, largest organization of the blind in the United States, the National Federation of the Blind is pleased that we are being afforded the opportunity to test and aid in the development of the product. We can validate that it is an innovative piece of access technology with great potential. We are hopeful that the Sunu Band technology will be integrated into one of the emerging navigation technologies we are identifying through our NFB Indoor Navigation Challenge

We make sure that technology developers understand that it is important that any wearable technology is both functional and stylish. The prototype of the Sunu Band has a wristband that can be sized fairly easily, and we found the to be a very simple and elegant solution. 

Sunu informs us that the design of the final product will be even better. All in all, we cannot wait to see the final product, and with the advent of app and possible beacon integration, we are really quite excited by what the future holds for the Sunu Band.

For more information about the Sunu Band, visit http://sunu.io/ or their Indiegogo campaign. The intended retail price for the band and one tag is planned to be $250. During the campaign, the band and tag combo is available at a discounted price of $199, and for this weekend they are planning to offer a special package with the band only at $70. 

To suggest other products in development for review, please email [email protected].