Student’s wearable technology design to help with visual impairments

Victoria University of Wellington design student Alexia Swain has created a piece of wearable technology that could help the visually impaired be more aware of objects and people around them.

Alexia’s creation is called the ‘Hello Hoodie’, a hoodie that is designed to help wearers who are visually impaired in one eye. It incorporates a light up wristband in one wrist which is connected to a proximity sensor located in the opposite arm. Whenever people or objects get too close to the sensor, the wristband lights up to alert the wearer.

Alexia herself is completely blind in her right eye, so her prototype design helps her navigate the world around her. In fact, she originally designed the hoodie for herself, but she hopes that her design will prove useful for others with similar visual limitations.

“I often find myself bumping in to people and objects that others would normally be able to see and avoid, particularly in crowded or dimly lit areas,” Alexia says. “I wanted to make a piece of wearable technology that would help me navigate my surroundings and avoid danger.”

“I chose to work with the wristband and the hoodie because a hoodie can easily be worn on top of any other outfit,” Alexia says. “It is also loose enough to hide any technology built into the garment.” The only part of the design that is visible is the wristband, which is made of LED lights housed in a plastic casing.

“I decided to programme the sensor to alert the wearer to objects staying close by for a long period of time because this can cause significant issues for the wearer and others,” Alexia says. “I came up with the idea after I was unable to detect two people waiting for a long time to get past me in the supermarket. I had my headphones on so I couldn’t hear or see them, and I felt terribly embarrassed at how rude I must have seemed. The sensors in the hoodie would have told me there were people waiting, and I could have moved out of the way sooner.”

Alexia had the option of using red, blue, or green light, but her final choice to fade between blue and green was based on both aesthetics and functionality.

“I chose to have the wristband fade between green and blue to create a more aesthetically pleasing experience for the wearer (as opposed to flashing lights or a harsh red light). These colours were also eye-catching to the wearer while not being too obvious to anyone around them,” she says.

Although Alexia currently has no plans to work on the idea further, she does have some thoughts on how she would improve the design in the future.

“If I were to make this design again, I would like to look at ways to embed the lights directly into the fabric, including fibre optics, which could diffuse the light in the same way as my current design without the bulky plastic wristband. I would also like to experiment with Neopixel strips, which would allow me much more control over the colours of my lights,” Alexia says. “I would also explore the possibility of using vibrations instead of lights to alert the wearer of nearby objects. This would mean the hoodie could communicate with the wearer seamlessly, without anyone else knowing.”

Alexia designed this piece of wearable technology during her final year of her undergraduate studies, as part of the Wearable Technologies paper lead by Anne Niemetz. Alexia’s project was one of the top five projects from the 2018 class.

“As a media design student, I was excited by the opportunity to work on a more hands-on project,” Alexia says. “This project was my first exploration of the field of wearable technology, which I believe to be an area of design that is becoming ever more important and prominent in our day-to-day lives as technology evolves to fit more power into a smaller space. This project, as well as the group project, ‘Lyra’, I completed in this class, were definite highlights of my degree.”

Alexia decided to study design because it gave her the opportunity to merge her love of fine arts with digital technology, as well as express her creativity in a way that had significance to the world around her. She had never studied design before and picked Victoria University of Wellington because of the wide range of design disciplines and courses she saw available here.

“The University seemed like the perfect place for me to explore a wide variety of papers that appealed to me,” Alexia says. “I’ve been able to explore a lot of areas that interest me, including 2D animation and wearable technology.”

Alexia hopes to continue creating and sharing her designs with other people, and would embrace the opportunity to work more on the Hello Hoodie.

“I would love to work somewhere that allows me to express my creativity as part of a motivated team,” Alexia says.