Do bat an eyelid

White sticks and guide dogs may soon be a thing of the past for blind people thanks to a British innovation inspired by bats.

Developed at the University of Leeds, the `spatial imager’ simulates the echolocation skills of bats by using ultrasound to locate obstacles. This information then causes the hand-held device to vibrate; providing the user with a `tactile map’ of the immediate vicinity.

Professor Deborah Withington, the neurophysiologist in charge of the project, explained how discussions with a food scientist about the use of ultrasound in the food industry to detect things like bruises on apples, provided the inspiration for this project.

Withington believes that as well as providing blind people with a greater sense of spatial awareness than that offered by the white stick, the device will also be of great use to the emergency services in poor-visibility situations.

A spin-off company – Sound Foresight Ltd – has been formed to develop the technology, and those involved hope to have something commercially available within two years.