Big Potential at First Sight

It was hot morning in the fall of 2012 as six school children made their way through the winding city sidewalks of Guadalajara, Mexico. The kids were not out ‘skipping school’ or on a school field trip. Instead, they were out on a weekly lesson where the classroom…is the city. The students are from the School for Blind Children, ‘Escuela Para Niños Ciegos de Helen Keller’, and on Thursdays the receive Orientation & Mobility or O&M lessons. O&M teaches the blind and visually impaired how to navigate the world and gain the necessary skills to be independent travelers. The lessons are intense and typically go on for a couple of years.

At the same time, two engineering students from the Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey were starting their community service project, a requirement for their bachelors degree in mechatronic engineering. Marco Trujillo and Cuauhtli Padilla grew up together in Guadalajara and shared a similar interest and talent for electronics and computer science. They also shared a curiosity and passion for assistive technologies, and were always tinkering to find solutions that would help improve the life for a longtime friend who lives with multiple disabilities. Marco and Cuauhtli won a variety of hackathons and competitions. The duo created six award-winning assistive technologies through their highschool and college years and collaborate on various projects that include a drone, a self driving vehicle and other devices.

Shortly after beginning their service project at the school, Marco and Cuauhtli were increasing curious about how the blind children learning Orientation and Mobility skills as well as play and learn other things at school. Every Thursday they observed how the kids would struggle with their lessons while walking around the city. Some of the kids, though using the white cane, would bump into sign posts, tree branches and a variety of obstacles that littered the sidewalks.

“At times there were no sidewalks that were even safe enough to travel” says Marco Trujillo. “I was impressed by how hard the children worked on developing their O&M skills, constantly adapting to the environment and just figuring out how to get to where the need to go…”

Accident are a frequent occurrence for blind and low vision pedestrians. Even though the white cane or guide dog help guarantee the next step, accidents to the upper body and the head pose a serious health risk and at times require emergency care. Frequent accidents lead to a decline in activity which can lead to isolation and depression.

Yet even with the arduous work and struggles, the children looked forward to their Thursday mobility lesson. Marco and Cuauhlti spent countless hours with the children accompanying them on their O&M lessons and even experiencing what it’s like to navigate the city blindfolded and with a white cane.

And then, the idea hit them…

“What if technology could enhance the awareness that the kids have towards obstacles…Could they better navigate the world with an electronic ‘sixth-sense’?” says Cuauhtli Padilla.

Marco and Cuauhtli brought one of their prototypes to the school. The device was a wristband with a sonar sensor and a vibrating motor wired up to a circuit board. This device would vibrate when an obstacle was nearby. They children were eager to try it out and quickly learned how to use it. What happened next caught the attention of teachers, the principal, parents and even the governor of the state of Jalisco.

The children began using this sonar wristband, solving makeshift mazes, playing a new version of ‘tag’ and even using it during their Thursday mobility lesson. Everyone was surprised at how quickly the children learned and adapted to their new electronic sixth-sense. The teachers and parents of the school insisted that Marco and Cuauhlti make more of these wristband devices and crowdfunded the early development of what would later become the Sunu Band.