Tags: Community & relationships Flourish Disability

“We want people to feel comfortable going out in the world, whether they’re 10 years old or 80.” – Electronic engineer Elaine Wong.

Before electronic engineer Elaine Wong had her son, Micah, she was primarily concerned with “blue skies” research. In other words, big-picture science that looks to the future rather than the here and now. 

But in recent years, Elaine has become more focused on creating devices and technology with immediate usefulness, a change she attributes largely to her nine-year-old son. 

“He is my motivation,” Elaine says. “Nowadays, I am more interested in technology with a tangible benefit, something that will help people.” 

Electronic engineer Elaine Wong

One of Elaine’s biggest projects, an optical laser-based device for the vision-impaired, is especially close to home. 

Micah was born legally blind and it was while talking to his orientation and mobility experts that the idea occurred to Elaine. 

“The experts were saying that as people get older they become mobility-impaired as well and wouldn’t it be great if there was something that could be placed on their wheelchairs to detect upcoming hazards,” she says. 

“Something like a cane, which senses hazards one and a half metres away, but that was also able to be fitted to a wheelchair or motorised scooter.” 

Elaine, who is Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in its Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, immediately saw the potential in the idea. 

Alongside her colleagues, Professor Marimuthu Palaniswami and Dr Aravinda Sridhara Rao, Elaine set about developing a prototype. 

“Often the non-protruding hazards, such as potholes and uneven surfaces, are an even bigger risk [for people who are vision-impaired] and so we wanted the device to be able to sense those hazards,” she says. 

In 2014, the researchers received a seed grant from the Ian Potter Foundation, a philanthropic trust that supports and promotes excellence and innovation, and developed an optical laser-based device that uses deviating patterns to decode hazards in front of the user.

The laser emits patterns and a camera detects any changes to them.

The user is alerted to an upcoming obstacle up to one metre ahead.

Elaine says the prototype will not replace canes or guide dogs; rather, it is hoped it will complement traditional aids.

“Canes don’t work for those in a wheelchair or a motorised scooter and guide dogs take a while to train, and there is quite a waiting list for them,” Elaine says.

“This device started out from a vision-impaired perspective, but we think it could be used by anyone in a wheelchair or on a scooter who needs to make sure the surfaces in front of them are OK.”

The device is in the refinement stage and Elaine is hopeful of it becoming commercially viable, although there is no timeline as to when this will happen.

She also wants the laser device to be affordable and cost between $10 and $20.

“We are still refining it as we need to make sure that the sensors work in all environments, from low lighting to bright areas,” Elaine says. “And we need funding and industry support to do that.”

Nevertheless, she is optimistic and excited by the potential for the device to keep seniors and the vision-impaired engaged in the community.

“It’s about people maintaining their independence,” Elaine says. “We want people to feel comfortable going out in the world, whether they’re 10 years old or 80.”

Micah has had some involvement with the project, too, even though he doesn’t need a mobility or ambulatory aid.

“He is really into gadgets and he did try out the prototype that my students made,” says Elaine.

Meanwhile, she is also involved in another project that features the use of optical fibres and sensors to detect the movement of people who suffer from dementia. This can provide health and safety monitoring for people with dementia who may need to be unsupervised for periods of time.

“The idea is that a combination of image monitors or heat and motion sensors are installed in the home,” says Elaine. 

“They then sense when a pattern of behaviour in the home is disrupted, when the person deviates from that pattern which has been recorded in data over time.” Elaine says this project is at the research stage, but has the potential to help many people.

Words: Johanna Leggatt Photo: Eamon Gallagher