Blog Date: 
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Amy Mason

CSUN is always an exciting time for the Access Technology Team. We get to explore all the new and interesting products that have come out, or are on their way to market, and this year was no exception.  We didn’t write about this product before now because its creator is still in the process of bringing it to market, but it’s a nifty little tool, and worth some exploration.

First, a brief caveat, this is a “first impressions” blog post, not a full-fledged review. I’ve not spent more than a few minutes with the device itself yet, though I have every intention of doing so when given the chance in the future. So with that… on to the review—

So What Is It?

Well, I’m glad you asked. The Ustraap is a navigational aid for blind users.  It’s more what I would call, “local” navigation, and not long distance like GPS. It is meant to be used in combination with a cane or dog guide, and not to replace them, (which is the first of several things that the folks from Ustraap got right).

Essentially the kit comes with four separate pieces. There’s a wireless charging station that the other three pieces can be placed on, a wristband, a truly tiny speaker-like device that you can clip under your ear on your coat or shirt collar, and a key fob.   

The heart of the device is the wristband. It looks like a fat slightly rubberized watch band, or perhaps a fit-bit device with a couple of very discreet control buttons, and a small metal peg that sticks to it via magnetics, and can be pointed in several different directions. (It’s also held in place with a little wire so it won’t get lost and can do its job.)  

This wristband when enabled will vibrate to give a user information about objects they are approaching. As objects get closer the vibration increases its frequency until (when the user is nearly on top of the object) the wristband is vibrating nearly constantly.  The little peg on the wristband is the sensor which is gathering information via sonar, and due to the ability to turn it in several different directions, a user has a lot of flexibility in how they use it. If left standing upright, it will be pointed in the same direction as a user’s cane (if used in the same hand as the wristband is worn), where it will give information about objects in front of the user, such as people in line ahead of them, or a things that are a bit more distant like trash cans or water fountains. It can also be pointed toward the sky to catch objects coming up at head height, such as the ever-hungry carnivorous tree limb, or the cantankerous back side of an open staircase.  If turned to one side, it can be used to “shoreline” buildings or search for an opening that the user may be looking for.  It’s small, discreet, and light, which are all features that have not been widely available in other sonar devices in the past. The majority of the sonar devices I’ve seen up till now have been cane mounted, and heavy.  This on the other hand, is very light and being on the wrist makes it much more portable, flexible and less obtrusive than the cane based models in my opinion.

The second piece of the kit is the earpiece, which can be pinned to a user’s collar under one ear.  Its purpose is to convey the same information provided by the wristband via audible cues. Being sound based, it is somewhat more sensitive than the wristband, and may be of benefit to some users for this reason.  Personally, I would have to try it more, but my first impression is that this piece of the device would be distracting to me, and I would likely not use it often.  That said, it does appear to work well, from my very limited testing, and certainly could have beneficial applications.

The final piece of the kit is a key fob that could be placed on any number of objects that a user is likely to regularly misplace.  When a button on the wristband is pressed the fob will emit an audible tone so that the user can locate the object via the sound cue.   This part also worked quite well, when tested, but is obviously more of an accessory to the main device than the main deal.

So you like it then?

Well, like I said, I only had about 15 minutes with the prototype, but I was pretty impressed with what I saw for that brief amount of time. Unlike many prototypes I have seen in the past, this one was well designed, and looked like a product that was ready for market right now.  This is not to say that the folks at Ustraap won’t be doing more fine-tuning, but it’s well-designed, and seems to do what it promises to do.  Being small and unobtrusive takes away most of the frustrations that tend to plague other sonar devices, and although I only used it for a few minutes, I could just imagine the possibilities.  

We certainly will be doing further testing, and will gladly keep you posted on our findings when we get our hands on one of the pre-release devices for final beta testing.

So it’s not actually out yet right?

That is correct. You are good at this, and I appreciate your rapt attention.  At the moment the folks at Ustraap are preparing to open a small pilot project. They will sell a small number of the current model devices to users now, and work with them as beta testers.  If the beta testing brings about new features or improvements to the device, the beta testers can trade in their device for the final product, and if not, then they’ve had the new toy first.  They are selling the beta kits, but at the pre-order price of $349 for the system, it’s not as expensive as many other sonar systems on the market. Keep an eye on Ustraap’s webpage for more information if you are interested.