Sunu Band – The Smart Wearable Helping Blind People Maintain Social Distance
Foresight is wonderful in business but when robotics engineer Marco Trujillo and legally blind chemist and serial entrepreneur Dr. Fernando Albertorio launched the Sunu Band in 2018, they couldn’t possibly have imagined the “new normal” lurking just around the corner.
The Sunu Band is an advanced mobility aid for the blind and severely sight impaired.
Worn like a watch or wristband, the device uses sonar and echolocation to detect objects in the wearer’s path and then provides haptic vibrations to supply information on proximity. The closer the object, the more frequent the vibrations, which then fade when the object is further away.
During the coronavirus pandemic, maintaining social distancing has been a major challenge for those with severe vision impairments, leaving many fearful of leaving their homes.
In the event that an emergency global hackathon for medical engineers was organized to identify a technological solution to this complex challenge, the device to emerge might well closely resemble the Sunu Band.
Via a paired mobile app, Sunu even allows the user to select the distance at which they wish to be alerted, which ranges from 1.5 to 5 meters.
The band has been likened to a radar or flashlight for those with sight loss, identifying objects when the sensor is angled in their direction. It may also be understood as a form of sense enhancing augmented reality with a tactile overlay, rather than the visual one commonly seen in mainstream AR devices.
As the pandemic wore on, the company began to receive an increasing number of reports from its customers about how helpful the band is for maintaining social distancing.
“Social distancing is the use case that all our customers have been telling us about,” says Albertorio.
“They find it particularly helpful for standing in a queue and being alerted when the person in front is starting to move forward, as well as the avoidance of people and obstacles in the supermarket.”
Resembling a Fitbit, the Sunu Band also features a lightweight, cosmetically acceptable form factor, a design challenge that appears to have perpetually dogged manufacturers of low vision wearables.
The device also offers safety benefits by allowing users to operate their smartphone directly through the band, while the phone itself is tucked away snugly.
Enhancing navigation for the blind
Sunu Band began life in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2013 after Trujillo undertook a community project at a school for the blind. During this time, he developed a keen interest in the way in which blind children learn to navigate and noted the upper body injuries they often sustain bumping into obstacles.
Trullijo’s path was to cross with Albertorio a year later when Albertorio was a mentor at the 2014 MassChallenge, a Boston-based global accelerator and competition for innovative start-ups.
The Sunu Band went on to win a Gold Award there and also won the Perkins School for the Blind Technology Sidecar Prize, later winning a Global Elevate Award in 2016.
Prior to its market launch in 2018, Sunu also went through Y Combinator, a highly competitive Silicon Valley-based accelerator program.
Albertorio joined up with the fledgling company, not just as a serial tech entrepreneur but in his capacity as a legally blind individual.
He has albinism, which, in his case, results in severe light sensitivity and eye movement disorders.
The band is not envisaged as a replacement for a white cane or a guide dog but as an additional novel layer of sense enhancement.
The original use case considered was the avoidance of raised or overhead obstacles, anything not being picked up by a regular sweep of the cane.
Sharpening new senses
Chris McNally, a low vision technology enthusiast, who was born with a form of Retinitis pigmentosa that severely impairs his ability to see in low light, is a dedicated user of the device and offers up some fascinating insights on how the band has remapped his senses.
“When navigating, it feels like my brain has been so starved of information that when something new and useful is incorporated, it latches right on to it,” he says.
“Feedback from the band is now integrated so deeply into the way I move around; I’m not even consciously thinking about the new input coming in anymore.
“As I sweep back and forth,” he continues, “I’m sensing walls and doorways. If I feel it pulsing faster, I know it’s a person coming at me, which is awesome, particularly because of the situation with Covid.”
This sense enhancing aspect is something which Katrina Best, an Orientation and Mobility Specialist based in Collier County, Florida working with school children and adults living with sight loss has also noted.
“I was working with a client in his fifties who is now totally blind and I wanted to try out the Sunu Band with him,” she says.
“We walked to a restaurant and I put it on him and he chuckled because he could suddenly tell when the waitress was walking past and ignoring us. The wearer can really feel when people are walking around them.
“I feel like it’s a tool for independence,” she continues. “Too often, students I see in grade schools and older adults tend to just rely on others.”
Future connectivity and expansion
In terms of a future pipeline, the interoperability of the hardware with a dedicated smartphone app means the opportunities to expand functionality are limitless.
This may include more granular mapping and guidance for blind people, even down to a street furniture level, and as a platform technology, further integration with third-party apps, such as Be My Eyes or even Uber.
“As a company, we want to challenge certain societal perceptions where people with disabilities are viewed as helpless,” says Albertorio.
“We believe wearable technologies that can augment human abilities have a big role to play in creating equity for disabled people through bridging the information gap and empowering and enhancing the senses.”
Over the socially distanced shorter term, the company is exploring other use cases for the Sunu Band. This could include individuals with suppressed immune systems seeking an extra level of protection when out and about.
There may also be mainstream applications for employees wishing to monitor distancing in closed or crowded working environments, such as in the hospitality sector, or for certain leisure activities where vision is reduced, like caving.
The Sunu Band may not quite yet feature all the bells and whistles of the Apple Watch but priced at $299 (three quarters of the price of the tech giant’s device), it offers those who could benefit so much more.
After all, innovative assistive technology devices are more than just cool gadgets to enjoy. They hack the human operating system at a fundamental level and can, thereby, promote unique and personalized modalities for independence.