Visual Assistant Hat; The Promotion of Independence Among Visually Impaired Communities: Examining the Causes of Limited Electronic Travel Aid Acceptance

Shamsie, Hafsah, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Globally, 43 million people struggle with blindness, while an additional 295 million people have a form of visual impairment. A common technical mobility aid solution for visually impaired people is electronic travel aids (ETAs), which are devices that analyze a user’s environment and then relay this information via some feedback form. Despite their presence, no ETA has been widely adopted by the visually impaired community, leaving them to continue needlessly struggling. My portfolio focused on how ETAs can be designed in a manner that better promotes user acceptance, such that visually impaired people can actually benefit from these devices. Thus, for my technical project, my team and I produced a visually assistive hat that aims to mitigate the current issues with existing ETAs, while my STS research focused on how actor-network analysis of current ETA production can bring insight into the most influential factors inhibiting their acceptance and use.

The technical portion of my thesis built upon existing work done on ETAs in order to design and produce a visually assistive hat that aimed to overcome issues associated with existing designs. Several flaws exist in current aids. For one, they fail to give users information about obstructions on their sides or coming up from behind them. Additionally, they offer limited detection ranges and fail to identify drop-offs or inclines in a user’s path. Many ETAs also lack everyday utility as they require users to hold them in the correct orientation at all times. Finally, several existing designs provide feedback in a non-intuitive manner or too far from a user’s ears, introducing the risk of the user not hearing alerts. My team’s design aimed to mitigate these issues through the creation of a powerful, yet lightweight, ETA that comes in the form of a hat. The product made use of more robust sensors, through the combination of LiDAR and ultrasonic sensors, that enabled the creation of a more powerful 360° detection system which could provide longer detection ranges as well as identifications of drop-offs and sudden inclines. Additionally, the design made use of an intuitive feedback system composed of a combination of auditory and tactile cues that are administered near the user’s ears to ensure feedback is heard without blocking the ambient environment sounds.

Despite having such apparent benefits of providing visually impaired people with a better understanding of their surroundings and greater independence, there is no widely accepted ETA, thus raising the question as to what factors are impacting ETA public acceptance and adoption. My STS research explored what specific factors most influence the acceptance and use of ETAs through the application of Actor-Network Theory paired with the translation model of power defined by Carolyne Stanforth. Stanforth describes how within actor-networks the actions of the most powerful agents bind networks together and, ultimately, determine the results of introducing a new technology within a society. Thus, this framework was applied to understand the current sociotechnical system surrounding two sample ETA models. My analysis of the actor-networks revealed that the most influential agents, which are primarily inhibiting ETA acceptance, is a combination of technical, social, and cultural components. The interplay of unreliable technology systems and ignornace of social norms in ETA designs combine to minimize organizational promotion of these devices. Ultimately, this culmination of actors are preventing overall ETA acceptance and use among the visually impaired.

My technical and STS research projects combined to bring insight on how truly understanding technical systems relies on a deep understanding of the interaction of human and non-human factors and their shared impact on society. Both forms of research indicated the need for a multi-level perspective, which considers the combination of technical, cultural, and organizational factors, to be applied to engineering practice, such that technology is designed with all user needs in mind. As taught in STS 4500 and 4600, the projects reflect the value of sociotechnical systems thinking when it comes to understanding a technology and how eningeering ethics and conscious design decisions impact this. Through the application of sociotechnical systems thinking to technology design and acceptance, it becomes clear how the ethical and social implications of an engineered device must be considered in all stages of its creation.

BS (Bachelor of Science)

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry Powell
STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley
Technical Team Members: Mary DeSimone, LaDawna McEnhimer, Gabriel Morales

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