by Christopher Gray

In late 2001, the American Council of the Blind was contacted by an energetic and dynamic lady, Jane Fowler, from a company based in the United Kingdom called Sound Foresight. Her question: Would we be interested in helping her company test a new prototype product, specifically an ultrasonic cane? After some discussion, two test sites were chosen: one in the Washington, D.C. area, the other in the Bay Area. Testers were identified, and Jane made her way to the United States to show us the first public versions of what is now the Ultracane.

No doubt, many readers have held and used electronic canes in the past. I well remember holding a laser cane in my hands about 15 years ago, and being amazed at its shortness, weight, and price, about $3,000 at that time. I was equally amazed and impressed by the information it conveyed about the surrounding environment that I could not get with my standard long cane. I've often thought about owning such a cane, but never really had that much discretionary cash at hand. Might this be the development that could increase utility and decrease costs?

Everybody was expectant and excited the first day of the Ultracane trials. Jane was an enthusiastic and organized teacher. Within three hours, everybody knew how to operate the cane, understood what was expected of them in their testing, and felt ready to go out into the world and give this new ultrasonic cane a try. There were surveys to be taken, phone calls to be answered, and after a few months of trials, Jane returned to take our feedback and answer questions we might still have. Even though the canes were prototypes and heavy, many clearly hated to return them at the end of the testing cycle.

Three years later, Ultracane is no longer a prototype, but a reality. It runs on two AA batteries and provides feedback at either a two-meter or four-meter distance for overhead objects, and for objects in front of the body, based on differently positioned ultrasonic transmitters and receptors. The canes are carbon fiber so even with the electronics of the cane, it is relatively light and easy to hold. The additional feedback it gives through tactile vibrators on the hand is amazing and quite useful.

Compared with laser cane prices of the past, $788 is a very welcome change as well. Also, this price will be further decreased if you purchase an Ultracane through the ACB store before June 1, 2005. Call 1-877-367- 2224. As Alan Brooks, new initiatives manager for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, said: "Many engineers have an image of what they think blind people want, but here the developers have taken the time to ask blind people, and to involve them in trials. I'm convinced it's going to be a real benefit to its blind and partially sighted users."

One of my goals for the American Council of the Blind is to have our membership more involved in testing and development of devices and technology that we need for improving and enhancing our lives. The Ultracane, and our relationship with Sound Foresight, is one example of how this goal is coming true for ACB.

As with most things, there are successes in technology, and things that still need some work. Many of you have contacted me these past few months about your frustrations about accessing the world wide web. Airlines charging for their telephone services, and referring customers to the web if you don't want to pay the fee, has undoubtedly spurred interest and frustration in this area. Is this an area where you feel that ACB needs to be more involved and proactive?

How are we doing in other areas of technology? As the convention comes closer, please give some thought and feedback to your representatives so we know what resolutions to pass and in what areas you believe further action is needed.

Experiences like the input on Ultracane provide clear evidence of how productive it is for companies and consumers to work together cooperatively. ACB has a reputation and a goal of participating positively in such arrangements. Once again, we have shown the value of such participation, and the blind in general can be the beneficiary of this work. Let it be a continued goal of our organization to strive for such arrangements based on cooperation and mutual respect. Through such arrangements, we can only improve things for the blind everywhere.

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