Over the years we have been fortunate to cover numerous student designed medical devices and we are always amazed by the innovation and creativity demonstrated by these teams. In November of last year we covered one such project, the Kinecthesia, a haptic belt which allows the wearer to virtually sense objects ahead, and to the left and right thanks to three motors which vibrate in response to objects in their immediate vicinity. As the name would imply, at the heart of the Kinecthesia is an XBox Kinect 3D camera which is connected to a Beagle Board computing platform that processes the depth data from the device and drives the motors.
Its two student creators, Eric Berdinis and Jeff Kisk, developed the Kinecthesia at Weiss Tech House, a student-run hub of technological innovation at the University of Pennsylvania that supports students in the creation, development and commercialization of innovative technologies. The project is very innovative and reflects a growing trend in hardware hacking and customization which is creeping into a number of fields including health technology.
Since we last saw the Kinecthesia, the project has received a lot of attention, winning several awards including taking first prize at the PennVention business competition. Jeff and Eric took some time out from their studies to talk to Medgadget about the Kinecthesia and their experiences in putting the system together.
Gavin Corley, PhD, Medgadget: What were the main challenges involved in developing the Kinecthesia?
Eric Berdinis & Jeff Kiske, Developers of Kinecthesia: Kinecthesia was a challenge to develop because it was a first in several ways. There are no other systems using a Kinect-like camera system for the blind in a portable form factor. We had to figure out the optimal hardware configuration that would not bother the user and that also had the horsepower and battery life to run well. Kinecthesia was also the first well-documented (as far as we know) system to run the depth-sensing drivers on an ARM processor — the drivers are built for x86 machines. Lastly, a belt like this is a first for people in the blind community. One of our biggest challenges is reaching out and finding people willing to give us feedback as we refine the system.
Medgadget: What sort of testing has been carried out on the system? Has the device been trialed by people with visual impairments?
Eric & Jeff: With each iteration of our depth-sensing algorithm, we tested the belt on an obstacle course of sorts. We record all of the data coming into the sensors, as well as the vibration intensities sent to each of the 3 vibration motors. If someone fails to detect an obstacle, we can review the data collected and see what went wrong. The initial prototype has been tested on several blind individuals both in the United States and India, and we have changed the design and functionality of the belt based on their feedback.
Medgadget: As embedded developers, do you see the increasing availability of sophisticated electronic development tools like the Kinect and Beagle Board as having a major impact on open-source medical device development?
Eric & Jeff: We definitely do. Making Kinecthesia would have been impossible even two years ago, and every month improved depth-sensing systems and embedded processors are released. In just one year, we were able to make the belt half the size of the original with components that were just released. The biggest concern for using these development tools is that many if not all of them are not intended to be used for medical purposes. Getting proper clearances for using these tools in a medical setting is essential before a device like this can be widely distributed.
Medgadget: There seems to be a great reaction to the Kinecthesia system in the press and through your project page. What sort of feedback are you getting from people on the system and are any primary user groups emerging?
Eric & Jeff: The feedback about Kinecthesia has been incredible from all angles. Tech blogs are excited about our use of the Kinect and embedded processor, medical blogs are interested in how the device might transform the visual aid industry, and blind organizations are already contacting us about availability. Our primary market is able-bodied blind or visually impaired individuals, but the device can be used in other scenarios. Professionals who work in low-light or dark situations like firefighters, miners, or military personnel could be aided by the use of Kinecthesia.
Medgadget: Have you plans to deploy/commercialize the Kinecthesia at some stage in the future?
Eric & Jeff: While we are currently still working on perfecting the device’s features and design, we are evaluating the best way to bring this device to market.
Medgadget: The Kinecthesia has won a number of awards over the last number of months including taking first prize at the PennVention business competition, what has this experience been like to date?
Eric & Jeff: It’s been incredible to see how different types of groups — from business people to engineers to entrepreneurs — have reacted to Kinecthesia and given their support. We love demoing the device at conferences and seeing how different people react the first time they put it on. After a while though, it’s nice to get back in the lab and keep working because as engineers we love the development process.
Medgadget: What is on the cards for the Kinecthesia over the coming year?
Eric & Jeff: One of the things we are planning on working on most next year is community involvement. We want to get the device in the hands of more real users and get the word out within the blind community. Feedback is key for the development of Kinecthesia and we love when people help us refine the belt.
Project page: Kinecthesia…