The white cane has been the gold standard of mobility tools for the visually impaired for nearly 100 years. Now Strap Technologies is on the verge of delivering a revolutionary tech-forward alternative: a lightweight, chest-worn device that guides users by calculating the proximity of physical environments.
The goal is to help people with visual disabilities “be more independent, more self-confident and have more opportunities … without the need to carry a cane or other accessory,” says company founder and CEO Diego Roel.
More than a quarter of the world’s population has a vision impairment, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S. alone, approximately 12 million people 40 years and over in the United States have vision impairment, including 1 million who are blind, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It was seeing one of those visually impaired people as they shopped that inspired Roel’s project. Working at a lab in Guadalajara, Mexico and an office in Austin, Texas, USA, the company borrowed some of the same sensing technologies behind autonomous driving, combined with an intuitive haptic language that guides users via vibrations. To help users master the device, the team built in a “learning mode” that simulates real-world scenarios.
Slated to launch in mid-2021, the hands-free wearable calculates the proximity of physical hazards like oncoming passersby, walls, steps, and even changing elevations on sidewalks and other pathways. Sensors also identify different surface textures so users can adapt how they walk.
Throughout the project, which has taken about 3 years to develop, the team relied on user feedback and years-long R&D to refine Strap—digging into everything from ease of use and comfort to product packaging and battery life. The earliest prototypes, for example, relied on light detection and ranging technologies, but they were “rather limited relative to more capable radar and ultrasonic sensors,” he says. So, the company changed direction.
“Our team culture is such that we have to be open enough to learn from each other and develop fixes and ideate on opportunities. And then also be willing to continuously incorporate what we’ve learned into our product,” says Roel.
The company has overcome early-stage funding and resource obstacles to earn first-mover status at a time of great uncertainty. The key, according to Roel, is staying aligned to the core project mission.
“Our team is developing a device that has not been done before,” he says. “We have to have honest conversations to ensure we stay on track to our north star.”