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Wake Forest students build device to help blind

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WINSTON-SALEM, NC -- A seeing eye dog can cost as much as $60,000. A Braille machine can cost up to $6,000. So three Wake Forest University students set out on a mission to create a device that can assist blind people -- cheaply.

In a semester-long project, seniors Jack Janes and Dominic Prado, and sophomore Ran Chang, developed, for $60, a device that looks similar to a watch. Using sonar technology, the device alerts its wearer when someone approaches objects.

Jack Janes, a WFU senior behind the project, explained how it works.

"This is designed so that as you approach an obstacle, it buzzes, and it vibrates, to warn the wearer of an incoming obstacle," he said.

The students call the device Human Echolocation Partner, or "HELP." Upon its completion, they asked blind WFU student Kathryn Webster to test it out.

"I would definitely use it on a daily basis," she said. "The only struggle I would see is trusting a device. But people trust their canes or service animals. So I don't see it as a huge issue. I definitely see the sonar watch as a possibility."

Webster currently uses a service dog to navigate campus. HELP's designers said the watch is not intended to replace a service animal but rather to augment one.

In her trial run, she used the watch without her service dog by her side.

"I was a little bit nervous that Kathryn, our wearer, would not think it was up to par," said Dominic Prado, one of HELP's developers. "Or that she would run into objects and poke some flaws in our project. But it really was a functional device."

Ran Chang, a business major who helped with the project, said he was thrilled that Webster had a positive experience with the device.

"Seeing Kathryn use it and actually telling us she liked it, that was a lot like a paycheck at the end of the day," he said.

The students said they got the idea of using sonar technology with the help of a professor. They hope it could one day become a mainstream product to help those who are visually-impaired.

"I certainly hope it could be," Chang said. "And I hope that we can make more cheap devices out there. So that it becomes more available for everyone."