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College Kid’s High-Tech Invention Helps Blind People Navigate

September 15, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

When he’s not sharing a stage with Demi Lovato and Katie Couric as a motivational speaker, or studying for college exams, or mentoring other young people with socially conscious ideas about how to make the world better, 19-year-old Alex Deans is hard at work improving the device he started building seven years ago.

It all began after he decided, good samaritan that he was, to try and help a blind woman across the street. After the encounter, he couldn’t shake the idea that there had to be a better way for her to get around.

All she had to help her get around was a cane, and she was on the waiting list for a guide dog, which there are more demands for than there are dogs,” he said. “Guide canes can’t help you figure out where you are in relation your destination and objects that are farther away.”

Bats, he recalled, use sound waves to help them navigate in the dark.

Already a whiz with technology, he got to work on the device whose main guiding piece of equipment is a joystick that helps steer the visually impaired user in the direction that the need to go.

The then-12-year-old spent years perfecting his invention, which uses ultrasonic sensors that create sound waves that ricochet off objects and alert the user as to how far away that object is.

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Now officially known as the iAid with a patent pending, the belt-like structure also offers voice commands and Google Maps helps to plan routes, and the joystick swivels and tilts to give step by step directions.

The Ontario, Canada native, who is currently attending McGill University and taking part in their chemical engineering program, is even working to install a camera component that will recognize and identify specific objects.

You can feel it moving in the direction you need to go in. As you become closer to your destination, the joystick will stand up straight,” he said. “The farther you are from where you need to go, the deeper the tilt.”

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Once he had a prototype ready, he decided to bring it to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and for the past two years, it’s been widely tested across visually impaired communities across Ontario, thanks also in part to a partnership with the Foundation for Fighting Blindness that has been spreading the word to the masses.

Deans has been taking all user feedback into an account as he continues to make improvements on the device, mainly, to assure optimum safety out in the busy streets.

When it’s ready for market, it should cost as little as $39 dollars, about $20 less than he estimated it to be last year, thanks to a diligent effort to get the cost of materials down.

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The iAid won the 2015 Weston Youth Innovation Award last year, and he was presented with $2,000 at a ceremony at the Ontario Science Centre last summer. There, he had the chance to demonstrate his device to local community organizations and school groups. He also had the chance to help create an interactive exhibit for kids there.

“I was so happy that I could share my invention with other young people, who could leave saying, ‘Hey, this guy isn’t that much different than us, and I have an idea that I want to make happen, too,'” Deans said. “My friends’ little brothers and sisters went to the exhibit and left feeling inspired to make something with their ideas.”

As for his own invention, he hopes it will one day replace canes and give blind people the ability to maneuver more easily on their own – an admirable goal from a guy who can not only see the world around him, but the future, as well.

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Oh, and a minor planet was named after Alex by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, too.

Most recently, he’s partnered up with the Royal Bank of Canada’s #ChangeAgent program, advising a number of young people about their ideas, including one young person’s idea to help support military veterans in their city, and another project to create unity and relationships between “aboriginal communities” to further understanding their challenges. 

“I want to offer insight into how it all works, encourage young people to engage with me and take action to make their idea happen,” he said. “I hope that in mentoring them and in my work as a motivational speaker, I can help inspire others by sharing my own failures and successes.”

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This past Tuesday night, however, Deans’s biggest challenge wasn’t any of the above.

“I’m just another struggling university student, so I’m sitting in the kitchen with no dinner plans and I have no idea what I’m going to do,” he said. 

He’s also hoping that soon, he’ll have a spare weekend so he can wake up at 5am to spend the day skiing with friends two hours up north. He’d better fuel up—there’s no end in sight for the college sophomore who’s just getting started in his quest to change the world.

“I love inventing things that help people out, and I have other ideas in my head right now, but they’re top secret. I’m working on them, though,” he said. “Hopefully they come out into the real world, too.”

To connect with Alex on Twitter or Instagram, hit him up at: @alexmdeans!

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