A toe tickling in-shoe navigation system for visually impaired people

Honda-backed startup Ashirase has created a GPS navigation that uses a series of haptic ‘tickles’ to help guide users as they walk.

It’s a fact—technology plays a vital role in tearing down barriers and making real inroads into improving accessibility. And yet, something like a walking cane, which is designed to help visually impaired people navigate, hasn’t seen much notable innovation.

Hoping to change that, Honda EV-engineer Wataru Chino has come up with a design solution in the shape of a wearable that uses vibrations to signal different directions. It’s a compact system made up of two parts, a dedicated Ashirase navigation app and a silicone shoe insert that vibrates to signal when and where a user can walk.

Wataru Chino, Representative Director of Ashirase, Inc. holding a shoe with the Ashirase navigation system – © Ashirase

Developed by Ashirase — a business venture funded by Honda’s New Business Creation Program — the navigation device is designed to be placed inside the wearer’s shoe and holds a combination motion sensor-electronic compass that use a series of haptic sensors to tickle the wearer and help guide them as they walk.

Aligned with the foot’s nerve layer, the vibrators are easy to feel. The user simply programs their walking destination into the app and the shoe inserts will vibrate in various patterns and tempos depending on the direction.

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Aligned with the foot’s nerve layer, the vibrators are easy to feel – © Ashirase

For example, vibrations under the balls of the feet mean to “walk forward” while “turn left” rubs the appropriate side of both feet to indicate a turn or obstacle. The speed at which the inserts vibrate indicates how close the turn or obstacle is.

The app works as you might expect, by localising the user based on GPS and data based on the user’s foot movement. It connects to a range of various mapping services like Google Maps by adapting to different information available on different maps. 

Soft material that maintains its original shape is used for the device in order to limit any discomfort to the user – © Ashirase

According to Ashirase, this form of intuitive navigation helps the walker attain a more relaxed state of mind. The point is to provide a more intuitive and effective alternative to using a smartphone, which dictates directions and could potentially leave the user exposed.

The company also plans to integrate the app in a bunch of cool ways so it can be used where GPS doesn’t meet. For example, in a shopping mall, it plans to use WiFi or Bluetooth-based positioning, connecting to other devices and cell phones within the store, to localize the user.

In-shoe GPS - shoes and smartphone
Ashirase vibration device is attached to shoes and Ashirase smartphone app – © Ashirase

The company is also considering ways to integrate with public transit systems so that the device can alert a user if they have arrived or are near their next stop. 

That would be a lot of tech packed into one tiny shoe gadget. The device is expected to launch to the public by the end of March 2023 when Ashirase will unveil a direct-to-consumer model as well as a subscription model.

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The device is expected to launch to the public by the end of March 2023 – © Ashirase