Some Thoughts on Smart Canes

over the last few years, many attempts have been made at creating a smart cane. None of them have successfully lead to a market transforming technology that's actually used by any substantial users.

I saw a recent example of a smart cane getting news coverage, and it deserves particular attention because of a particularly egregious argument used within. I've seen this argument, or variations therein, made in several posts about smart canes. I will address this below, and lay out why this argument does not present a solid case in favor of a smart cane. I will then lay out several design and engineering constraints that must be met before I would ever be able to recommend a smart cane to another blind person.

argument structure and example

“We’ve come to a world where we talk about autonomous vehicles and yet we’re still sending visually impaired people out with what is essentially a stick,” Feghali said. “It doesn’t take you anywhere. It doesn’t take you to a coffee shop. It doesn’t help you seek employment. It’s just a stick.”

Another similar argument that is often presented is functionally equivalent, but (wrongly) mentions the fact that a cane has not changed in almost a hundred years and still is just a stick.


There are literally thousands of examples of objects that are "just a stick", or in similar fashion, just a piece of metal, or similarly primitive. For example, I often times will grab a wooden spoon if I'm stirring something on the stove, or use a pot, with a simple design that has no fancy bells and whistles and does not need a Bluetooth connection or have its own heat regulation. The knives in my kitchen resemble primitive metal objects, (although they are far from primitive and have subtle design elements that engineers spent thousands of hours refining). I eat food with a fork, which is just a chunk of metal. The knives in my kitchen don't cut onions for me, or help me make sure my bread slices are all equally thin. I've never once thought wow, a smart knife could help me slice potatoes more efficiently, because if I want to slice potatoes more efficiently, I'll grab a tool designed by smart engineers like a mandolin, food-processor, etc. Trying to make a knife smart would defeat the purpose of a simple and versatile tool. A pencil is "just a stick" with some graphite in the middle, and hasn't been seriously refined in decades. Where's my smart pencil that measures my pencil strokes and vibrates if my handwriting is sloppy? Right, the market doesn't want such junk. Mason jars, with their compression rings and seals, have had the same design for decades, and aren't being called primitive by the media. Hikers use wooden, fiberglass, carbon fiber, or metal sticks to balance and the poles do not have gps built into them. Any company trying to build a hiking pole with a gps would get laughed at, because that would needlessly increase the weight of the pole, which is why materials like carbon fiber are becoming so beloved in hiking poles. Hiking poles don't help hikers get jobs, nor do hiking poles offer any less advantage in a world filled with autonomous cars. A hiking pole in the wilderness won't help you become unlost if you don't have a map and compass, and the knowledge to use them, and whether autonomous cars exist is irrelevant to whether hiking poles, with their simple multiple millennia spanning design, are useful in their current form. Just like the tools listed above, the blind persons cane has lasted for a century in its current form, and thousands of years prior actually with slightly less refined designs, because it works. It's that simple. The original engineers who decided to improve upon a stick to come up with a cane optimized the design so well that further refinements were relegated to small updates to the existing design as new materials became available. A radically different cane or guiding implement has never materialized, because there aren't any problems that need solved in regards to finding objects nearby, besides objects above nee height. This is the only reasonable place where a piece of smart tech could be used on the cane.

Ramblings about cane designs

Blind peoples canes aren't just a stick. Any reputable cane manufactured in the last 2 decades has a handle built into it and a tip that can be replaced, so the cane performs optimally and can be adapted for different environments. Cane tips come in many different types of materials. Ceramic tips are super hard, take several years or more to wear down, are damn near indestructible, except in Canada where they freeze-thaw break. Nylon or UHMW roller tips are great when sliding a cane, and some even are designed for cobbles. Pencil tips are nice when trying to tap, because they are light, and marshmallow tips prevent obsessive cussing because they glide over cracks in walkways, instead of sending the cane into the operators gut. These tips are all replaceable, for one simple reason. The end of a stick doesn't last forever. Additionally, many white canes have reflective tape on them, which reflects lights from vehicles so that a blind person walking at night is more visible. Many people prefer folding or telescoping canes. Folding canes often times have a lot of design elements, such as joints that are capable of being tapped for hours on end, roled around causing all sorts of jostling, and finally folded up into something no longer than a foot in less than 5 seconds. The joints can't get stuck, because people will not be happy when a blind person can't get their cane folded up and its in the isle of a bus or train. Modern materials, such as carbon fiber, are great for canes, because they have lowered the weight of the cane, making them much easier to move quickly. Additionally, carbon fiber canes do a fantastic job at conveying the feel of the ground, suchh as what material the surface is using, subtle differences in asphalt texture, changes in elevation, bumps, or lines at a street corner, etc. Heavier materials like aluminum or steel aren't as suited for this purpose. Carbon fiber bends elastically, far more than many other materials, and so carbon fiber canes don't end up bent as often. Canes that are used in cities get run over by notoriously rude bikers and pedestrians, and shouldn't break. If a cane breaks and the person using it isn't carrying a backup, well ... they obviously haven't taken the age old advice of carying a backup cane seriously. It will only be a matter of time until they learn their lesson the hard way. That's why some folding cane designs, such as these Ambutech folding lightweight graphite canes have engineered failures. Forces applied at a perpendicular angle to the cane cause an engineered failure and fold a segment of the cane, which prevents a break in almost all cases. Meanwhile, forces that occur under normal use, such as forces applied on the same, or a similar plane to the cane itself will do absolutely nothing to the cane. I've literally had a pedestrian jump over my cane instead of saying excuse me, fail, and end up splitting it with their legs. Instead of breaking, or bending significantly, the cane will almost always just release a segment as if I tried to fold it. I then just snap it back together like nothing happened. This is also a great way to amuse myself, because the rude pedestrian thinks they've actually broken my cane and are really concerned, and I just snap it back together, and walk away as if nothing happened. a cane is more than just a stick, its a stick with many suttle refinements that have been made, without changing the basic technology. The engineering refinements that have been made over the decades are so well done that the average user, who isn't constantly analyzing engineered objects and wondering what subtle things were designed, won't even realize serious effort was placed into ensuring some set of constraints was optimized.

Things a smart cane would need.

In order for a smart cane to be usable, it needs to be light enough that I can move it back and forth, and it needs to move quick enough that every time I take a step it can move across my entire body. Heavier canes become more annoying to do this with, and I end up walking slower, or becoming annoyed when I have to push it through snow or make it avoid someone. If the lower end of a smart cane is broken, I'm not paying infinity for a new cane, and realistically the government isn't nor shouldn't either. I'm expecting the smart tech to b able to be swapped onto a new cheap cane, and I'm expecting the non-smart bit to be collapsable so I can stoe a spare one in my bag in case I encounter a bear (um ... I mean rude cyclist). In reality, my cane is going to be used in many scenarios, some of which are far from ideal for electronic components. I have used my cane in full on blizzards, rain-snow mix, and full on summer downpores where literally everything is soaking. I've walked several miles in weather cold enough to become frost bitten in minutes, and I can't aford to take my gloves off to operate a touch screen. When I was in college, don't go out in that kind of weather simply was not an option, so the cane's water resistance better be good enough to take a full on wet onslaught for several hours. I better be able to take it from -10F into a 70F building without it caring. I also don't want my cane pulling an apple and shutting down whenever it gets cold. I guess it'd be even more special if it acted like an Apple device, since Apple devices like to claim they're too hot when they shut down at the cold end of their range. I also don't want it talking to me when I'm trying to pay attention to where vehicles are when crossing a street, so having a shh mode might be useful. Or better yet, the shut-up mode should be the default and I should have to tell it to talk. This is very critical. I've seen way to many devices designed "for the blind" that talk at infinity decibels in a really slow voice. I wanna see the designers cross a street with 6 lanes of traffic, one lane of which can turn left, and a jack hammer occuring in the background. Then, they'll do this while having someone scream really slowly and loud in a daemonic voice about a water bottle lying in the streat and we'll let a car run the red light just for fun and see if they handle it well. I don't really care for my cane to have a gps, because my phone can already do that. However, above the knee objects would be useful to have identified. Also, can I swap in new batteries when they die if I'm on a long trek?

These are a few thoughts I have on smart canes, the flawed arguments that generally lead to a device that doesn't really need to exist, and the few cases where the tech could be useful if someone squints hard enough. Overall, I'm not particularly interested in seeing a smart cane come into existence, because it just sounds expensive and like a less than ideal weight addition. It seems like people are trying to modify a kitchen knife to heat food instead of creating an oven, and then generating media buzz about their new super cool knife that can also toast your bread.