Optic device offers aid to visually impaired swimmers

A navigation aid that allows visually impaired competitive swimmers to train safely has been developed by a product design student at Loughborough University. 

The product, developed by final year product design student Mirthe Hofstede, removes the need for a ‘tapper’, a person such as a coach who warns a swimmer when they are close to the edge of the pool, or when they need to turn, by tapping them with a long foam-ended pole. If a signal is given too early or late, it can lead to a swimmer being disqualified or injured.

“Optic will give visually impaired swimmers the confidence to push their bodies to the very limit in competition and training without the uncertainty of not knowing where they are,” Hofstede said in a statement.

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Using infrared beams and ultrasonic technology, Optic detects a swimmer’s distance away from the pool wall and whether they are swimming in the middle of the lane.

It is comprised of two sensor-containing components: a collapsible device that adheres to the pool wall via suction, and a wearable device that attaches to a pair of goggles.

The sensors communicate information to the swimmer via the wearable device, which utilises bone conduction hearing.

It counts down how far away a swimmer is from touching the wall and instructs them on how to stay in the middle of the lane – an issue visually impaired swimmers face as they cannot see the black line at the bottom of the pool that helps swimmers with sight stay in position.

“I used to be a competitive swimmer. Swimming is an area where I have a lot of base knowledge and it’s a passion of mine,” Hofstede said in a statement.

“When I came across visually impaired swimming in my research, I was surprised to find out that visually impaired swimmers have a high risk of injury as well as no consistent navigation method which is used in both training and competition,” she added. “I therefore set myself the task of solving this problem.”

Optic
Optic navigation aid for visually impaired swimmers (Image: Loughborough University)

Hofstede created the product based on feedback shared by visually impaired swimmers and coaches.

She has prototyped a visual and electronic version of Optic, and has found the infrared, ultrasonic, and bone conduction hearing technology operates accurately in a pool environment and gives swimmers detailed feedback.

Now Hofstede hopes to further develop the product through user testing with swimmers, trainers, and competition staff.

Hofstede said: “I hope to one day see Optic being used in both training and competition environments in the future.

“By making Optic available to all swimmers, swimming competition rules can be changed and make Optic a necessary piece of racing equipment for visually impaired swimmers.

“I want to reduce the level of stress visually impaired swimmers and their coaches currently feel throughout their swimming experience.

Hofstede is showcasing Optic as part of the Degree Show 2021 at Loughborough.