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UMass-Lowell Graduate Develops ''Smart Shoes'' for the Blind

By By Associated Press

LOWELL, Mass. (AP) The buzz is all about Richard N. Castle's new shoes for the blind.

Put them on and walk around, and the sides of the shoes begin to shake. Approach a wall or an object, and they shake faster. Move around, and different parts of the shoes vibrate.

The shoes are equipped with infrared sensors that sense objects up to a meter away and trigger vibrations corresponding to the location and size of obstacles.

The model is only a prototype, but Castle, of Dracut, already holds a provisional patent for the invention. He hopes to find a possible buyer, then develop more sophisticated shoes that could help blind people navigate their homes or the streets.

''When you get used to it, you can feel what's around you. You can tell when you're closer to something or farther away,'' Castle told The Sun of Lowell.

For a blind person, the shoes could provide a way to get around without a walking stick or seeing-eye dog, he explained. Rather than using a cane around the house, a wearer could rely on the shoes to tell him where a doorway or the coffee table is located.

''It will have a wider application the more sophisticated he could make the sensing equipment,'' said Dana Bernor, an adaptive equipment instructor at the Lowell Association for the Blind. ''I could see them as something useful for somebody who needs to use a cane indoors.''

Castle, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, came up with the idea last year as part of a senior project for his electrical engineering major. All students in the program must develop a new device that could help people with disabilities.

While researching devices for quadriplegics, he came across a system that used sensors in the walls of a house to set off an alert when a wheelchair got too close. That gave him the idea to take the technology off the walls and put in shoes.

Castle hopes to create a more waterproof shoe by embedding much of the circuitry in the soles, and create some kind of sensor that would detect when the wearer is walking down stairs.

The cost of creating the shoes was a bit more than $200. At $20, the shoes were the most expensive item.

The design and creation of the shoes was so inexpensive and so easy that Castle was surprised he was the first to come up with the idea.

''It's so simple. I can't believe someone hasn't thought of it before,'' he said.