I have not been using the UltraCane for long so my opinion is not based on Ong term exposure however I have done plenty of walking over the past week in areas that I know very well and areas that I have never visited before in both busy and very quiet environments so I have a decent idea of if this mobility aid will benefit me or not. Of course, I have another two or three weeks before making my mind up completely and I’m certainly going to get as much out of this time as possible.
I thought I should write this review to highlight why I think the UltraCane is so good but yet needs so much improvement to be a mobility aid that people just can’t do without.
I have used devices that employ ultrasonic waves in the past such as the Miniguide and the K-Sonar so I am quite comfortable with the concept. The UltraCane is something that has interested me for quite a while so when I broke my previous cane two weeks ago I decided that it was time to try something different.
I like the UltraCane. I think it is a very good idea. From a short time of using it, I found that I am a little more confident while walking. There’s one thing I really hate about the normal cane. That is, to know an obstacle is there you need to make physical contact with it. With the UltraCane it is possible to sense the obstacle through one of the vibrating plates on the handle. I find that following walls for example is much easier because I can keep the vibrations at a steady level while sweeping the cane from side to side.
I think that the design of the handle should and probably will mature and evolve sooner rather than later as a lot of small but very important details need to be reassessed. Using the cane for an extended period of time results in strain to my hand. Especially my index finger. Maybe this is something I’d get use to tú I find in particular when following a wall on my right, the angle that I need to twist my hand to is not natural or comfortable so after a while I find that I need to move my grip regularly to help. I would actually be concerned that this movement when following something on the right using the sensor has the potential to cause RSI.
I have sent the following points to Sound for Sight who have relayed them to the engineers of this very interesting mobility aid.
- The vibrating plates on the top of the handle are poorly positioned in my opinion. As a blind person, I find the most sensitive or aware part of my hand is my index finger. This comes from reading Braille and indeed typing. The thumb is probably one of the least sensitive parts. It would be more natural to receive this feedback through vibrations delivered to the index finger or maybe even the index finger and the thumb. I’m aware that the canes are designed to be used by both left and right handed users but this design choice may need to be revisited.
- An alternative battery source should be used. Using conventional AA batteries has its benefits of course however a battery that can be recharged by plugging in the cane would be a lot more sustainable and cost effective for users.
- I’m sorry to say that the audible tones for low battery notifications are quite useless. In my experience as a user of the cane in built up areas the audible tones produced are not loud enough to be heard in busy areas. Of course, users would not want loud tones as they would draw attention to the cane therefore an alternative method of feedback should be employed. For example, alternating vibrations between the plates and / or vibrations of alternate duration. Of course, looking at a different approach, a third vibrating plate could be inserted to facilitate notifications so that there could be no confusion as to if vibrations signify a notifications or an upcoming obstruction.
- The manual refers to a cover that can be fitted over the sensors during heavy rain. I have not received any such cover.
- The switch for turning off the cane and changing between short and long distance scanning are in a very unusual place. I suggest that the switch is replaced by three water proof buttons positioned for the three fingers at the bottom of the cane. I regularly change between modes while walking depending on what I am scanning for. The current location of the switch does not cater for this as naturally as on other similar devices.
- The ergonomic design of the cane is something that I noticed as soon as I began using it however I suggest a minor change to the positioning of the sensors. The sensors are designed to stick out straight with the users hand in the normal grip position. This means that when twisting the wrist to scan for a wall on the left the motion is very natural and relaxed. However, when twisting the wrist to the right to scan a for a wall on the other side of the user the movement is not as natural. I suggest moving the sensors just slightly so that by default, the users hand is held in a more tilted position to the left to have the sensors pointing in the forward position. This way, while scanning right the wrist movement would not be as strenuous.
I appreciate that a lot of work goes into designing a product like this and the changes I suggest would not be possible in the short term however I would hope that the engineers take them into account during future iterations of the product.
There are a few things that annoy me a little when using the UltraCane:
- The noise the cane makes while rolling it is very loud and hollow. This is probably because of the UltraCane handle. This sound dims as the tip is worn down a little but the noise is a bit more noticeable than with a standard mobility cane. I must admit however that I hate the sound of a cane with a passion. It is a pet hate of mine ever since after I got my first guide dog so many friends remarked at their relief that they didn’t have to listen to it scraping along the ground any more. It’s something I have been a little more conscious of since.
- I think the wrist strap on the top of the UltraCane is handy while walking but it’s a bit cumbersome when trying to secure the cane tightly after folding it up. I’m wondering about trying to put some kind of elasticated strap onto the handle of this one… If I keep it of course to make it faster to store the cane neatly when using public transport. Again, this is personal preference.
- The UltraCane has been improved in the past few years. Sound for Sight say that it is now lighter than before but I can’t help wondering why it is still so heavy. There are similar devices out there that are a lot lighter. Why is the UltraCane so heavy?
- The UltraCane handle seems to be much bigger than it needs to be as well. Looking at similar devices that do not come with a cane that use ultra sonic waves and vibrations to provide feedback, it seems to me that the size of the handle is much bigger than it needs to be. Take the old Mini guide for example; this was the size of a cigarette lighter!
- The UltraCane seems to be more expensive than alternative products as well. Now, I could be wrong here, but why is this?
To me the ultra-cane feels like a very useful mobility aid however it seems like the concept is still in its infancy. Minor design changes to the handle so that it is easier to hold for an extended period of time, better placement of the tactile indicators and more durability will, I hope, make this a tool that becomes a standard mobility aid for many blind people.
I do actually like the UltraCane a lot. I am being critical because I don’t want to give you a false sense of what it can and can’t do. I’m still not sure if I’ll keep it. £635 excluding postage is a lot of money. It came to just over €800 in total. If it can’t do absolutely everything I need it to then I think I will give it back. That said, if it can help me get around with a bit more confidence then I might just be convinced. Either way, I think it has a long way to go before I would personally say that it is a mature product.
For faireness sake, here are a few of the reasons I like the UltraCane a lot:
- I love the fact I get prior warning before I meet something with the cane. There is a particularly annoying sandwich board on Nassau Street in Dublin. When walking down toward Kildare Street I meet it. It’s a land mark so I could avoid it if I want but meeting it means that I’m along the right line and I’ll be passing the shop doors slightly. I walk out from the edge of the building slightly to make sure I don’t walk straight into people stepping out of doorways at that point. Then I come to the tactile markers so I know I can turn right… It’s a hand enough rout but I hate having to find that land mark. Especially when it’s raining because for some reason the building always drips on me. It’s very irritating. With the UltraCane I walk with the building on my right. I don’t actually touch the wall with the cane. I just keep the vibration on the handle reasonably constant. This is something that is taking a lot of practise because it’s very hard to feel the difference in the speed of the vibrations using my thumb. When their quite slow its fine but if I’m two feet from a wall their almost completely undistinguishable. While I’m walking down the street I will notice that directly ahead the UltraCane detects an obstacle. Because I’m not yet ready to just find a way around this obstacle using vibrations alone, I still meet it with the cane but it’s not as bad because I have time to slow down and meet it on my own terms. From there I orientate myself away from the side of the building and I continue on my way.
The nice thing about the UltraCane is when I’m walking past the fruit stand outside one of the shops the vibrations get faster so I have yet another land mark to verify my path by without even having to touch it.
I’m hoping I’ll get better at this with time so that I can avoid the sign without having to touch it. I find it much easier when buildings jut out for example.
- One great time to have the UltraCane is during bin day. Again, I’m not as practised with it as some people so I still like to actually touch the obstacle but knowing something is there in advance is a more reassuring than I thought it would be.
- Oh of course, the UltraCane has a sensor that tries to detect objects at head level. I am delighted to say that I’ve tested this and it works. I’m tired of walking into wet bushes hanging over a wall or decorative plants hitting me in the face on the way to work in the morning. There are two decorative plants at face level on one side of South Fredrick Street. With the UltraCane I can sense these when their near so I can put my hand out to avoid them. This is going to be great on wet mornings.
Of course, this is just my opinion. I’d be very interested in hearing from other UltraCane users.