Braille Monitor                                                                  March 1985


Oscar: The Talking Travel Aid

by Louis J. Finkle, Ph.D.
Coastal Carolina College
University of South Carolina
Conway, South Carolina

(Comments by Kenneth Jernigan, President, National Federation of the Blind: I think the material contained in the following article should be available to Monitor readers. To this end we published a "Monitor Miniature" about OSCAR in the January, 1985, edition of the Monitor. However, I want to make it clear that we in the National Office of the Federation are not in a position to pass judgment on the accuracy of the opinions expressed. My first experience with electronic travel aids occurred in the mid-1950's when I was working at the California Orientation Center for the Blind in Oakland. A man from the Walt Disney Studios wanted us to test the marvelous electronic travel aid he had

developed. It was an interesting novelty, but nothing more. It was to be attached to one's cane at about a foot and a half from the ground with a wire running to a small device which was placed in the ear. It is true that the device would detect some objects some of the time, but it wouldn't give as much information as my cane would give; and after the newness wore off, it was simply a nuisance. It was heavy, and it was unreliable. The beeping in the ear was distracting. But above all, you could get more information from your cane than you could from the device. It was not a matter of cost or availability or any of the other things we usually hear discussed. It was just that the cane was better and easier to use. I told the Disney man so, and he seemed less than pleased about it. He may have been among the first but was certainly not the last to go away miffed and call me a radical and a rabble rouser because I would not smile politely and tell him what he wanted to hear even if I did not believe it and thought it would be harmful to the blind. This is not to disparage research or to say that an electronic travel aid which is superior to the regular lightweight, long, white cane may not eventually be--or, for that matter, may not now be--on the market. It is only to say that I have not seen one and that my experience has been that electronic travel aids (like television and rehabilitation) have promised much and delivered little. I hasten to add that I have not tried the OSCAR and that it may do all that is claimed for it. I hope that it will.

My attitude is that I will gladly examine and try any electronic travel aid which comes to hand, but until I find one that will give me more data with more ease and efficiency than I can get from my cane, I will stay with what I have. My cane is inexpensive, it is lightweight, it is relatively maintenance free, and it is reliable. If an electronic device comes to my attention which seems to be as effective as my cane, I will weigh the relative advantages and disadvantages and choose accordingly. In the meantime here is Dr. Finkle's article.)

For the past twenty years there have been sporadic attempts to meet the needs of blind persons who wish to use electronic travel aids to travel independently. Several organizations and companies have provided electronic travel aids that were unique but not highly marketable. Some of the reasons include costs, "thin" markets and difficulty in meeting design requirements. Some of the best devices (Nurion Laser Cane and Wbrmald Sonic Guide) have price tags greater than a thousand dollars. We now have ample data that indicates that a thousand dollars represents a critical threshold in assistive device purchases. The Wormald MOWAT and Pentad OSCAR have more favorable price tags but have not been "best sellers." In fairness to the Pentad OSCAR, it has just entered the market and very few people know much about this "talking marvel." More about this later.

I was fortunate to have been funded to conduct an opinion survey of mobility instructors on the use of electronic travel aids, in general. To my knowledge this was the first mass survey on the subject in the twenty years I have been affiliated with programs for blind persons. The nationwide survey was conducted during October, 1984, to determine the impact that new electronic travel aids may have on manufacturers of devices and the lives of travelers with visual limitations. It was assumed that the responses would be of value to clients who are blind in that they would benefit by an evaluation of appropriate travel aids by instructors in mobility. It was also a mechanism whereby the travel aids industry might use the information to refine and invent future products based on data collected and reported.

Most responding mobility instructors cited cost as the most inhibiting factors preventing them from recommending electronic travel aids for blind persons. When presented technical information on four excellent electronic travel aids (Nurion's Laser Cane, Wormald's Sonicguide & MOWAT, and Pentad's OSCAR Rangefinder) and asked to select the one they would recommend if all four were to cost the same low price, the OSCAR Rangefinder was chosen most frequently. The Obstacle Scan and Reporting (OSCAR) device can be used as a handheld detector of objects and obstacles or mounted on a travel cane. It uses ultrasonic transmission to "sense" the forward environment and an internal computer measures distances to the detected surface. The signal then travels to a voice synthesizer to generate the words heard by the user. Amazingly, all of this takes place in less than one second in a container about the size of a pocket paperback book. Travelers may now be told the distance to tree limbs, poles, people, chairs, tables, etc. instead of continually bumping into them. The OSCAR's sensor is small enough to place in the palm of a hand and light enough to mount on a travel cane. It can be angled by the traveler to detect obstacles in any chosen direction which is a marvelous answer to the question "How do I know when I am about to hit something the cane cannot reach?"

OSCAR...The Talking Rangefinder having been field tested throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia is now being test marketed in the New England states (by the Pentad Corporation, 109 K. North Main Street, Woodstock, Virginia 22664) for about $495. Specific requests for technical information or purchasing OSCARs should be directed to the manufacturer.