Nov. 2, 2000 WORCESTER, Mass. - A sighted person cannot imagine the terror of negotiating a busy city street. An intersection may have a crosswalk button, but how do you find the pole, let alone the button?
A team of students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute has found an answer to that question. On Tuesday, Nov. 14, at 10 a.m., the students will demonstrate their invention in front of Worcester City Hall, at the corner of Main and Front streets. Helping them will be Larry Raymond, the city’s assistant director of human resources, who suggested the project and who is himself blind.
The team of four WPI students completed the project, called “Crosswalk Button Locator,” with help from faculty advisor Leonard Polizzotto, professor of practice and director of the WPI Center for Globalization of Technology. The students include Matthew Geiger, a junior electrical engineering major from Stoughton, Mass.; Brian Laplume, a sophomore electrical engineering major from Leicester, Mass.; Jeremy Lynch, a senior electrical engineering major from Auburn, Mass., and Rabin Tamang a junior physics major from Brattleboro, Vt.
How did the project come about?
“Larry Raymond called the school about a year ago and asked if there was a way WPI could help develop a device that would enable blind people to locate the button on street poles that makes the crossing sign illuminate,” Polizzotto said. “His request was passed onto me. I then sent out a solicitation for students and these four replied.”
The push buttons at intersection crosswalks are problematic for the blind, said Raymond.
“The walk light only goes on when the button is pushed,” he said. “It’s not automatic. Often a blind person has to wait until a sighted person comes along and pushes the button. We need something to allow a blind person to locate the push button.”
Knowing of WPI’s experience in community-oriented projects, Raymond asked for an inexpensive, effective solution. “I strive to be as independent as possible,” said Raymond, who uses a guide dog. “But if I come to an intersection and no one else is standing there, I may miss a couple of light cycles before I can cross. To have my independence and be able to cross the street safely–that will be one more way I can empower myself.” Polizzotto is pleased with the solution the WPI team found.
“The students did an outstanding job, surveying blind people to determine what they needed and then taking their input to come up with a product,” he said. “The exciting aspect to what the students developed is that not only does it work, but it is very inexpensive. This will make it very attractive for cities to install, and it will result in a significant improvement in the safety and independent mobility of the visually impaired.”
The invention, which will cost an estimated $100 per pole (or $400 per intersection) to install, involves a signal device that fits in a cane or on the collar of a guide dog.
“What we’ve done is use a transmitter and a receiver system,” Polizzotto explained. “The receiver consists of an antenna and beeper mounted on a light pole. The blind person carries the transmitter, which is activated manually or automatically, to signal the receiver.” Upon activation, a pulsating tone guides the blind person to the crosswalk button.
The WPI device augments the current crosswalk system used in Worcester and other cities, which consists of a flashing lighted sign. Some busy intersections also include a “chirping” noise that indicates the walk light is on.
“The project has a tremendous potential to help every party involved,” said Rabin Tamang, one of the students who worked on the project. “It has major social implications involving more than just the visually impaired. Developing a better method for finding the crosswalk button can improve the quality of life for the visually impaired.”
Polizzotto and his students plan to market the device to cities across the country. They are applying for a patent and researching options for its manufacture.
“I believe that we have a patentable concept with which we can start a company to make and sell this product-or we can license the technology,” he said. Meanwhile, Raymond couldn’t be happier with the results.
“I’m very, very proud of the students and the commitment they gave to it,” he said. “I was very surprised at the level of research and commitment on their part. They really pursued this and I’m just glad to be a small piece of this project. If it’s successful and other communities can benefit from it–including the blind community–it will be a significant accomplishment for all of us.”
The crosswalk project may be the start of a new connection between the city of Worcester and WPI. Raymond has come up with yet another idea to help the visually impaired. In the new Worcester Library, “talking signs” will help the blind find their way around, making it easier to locate library services such as talking books. Polizzotto is recruiting a new team of WPI students to work on this project.
For more information, contact Polizzotto at 508-831-5234 or Raymond at 508-799-1031.
Founded in 1865, WPI enrolls 2,700 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students in science, engineering, management, humanities and arts, and social sciences. Under the WPI Plan, undergraduates complete three projects focusing on their major course of study, the humanities, and the interactions among science, technology and society.
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