According to the World Health Organization, at least 110 to 190 millions of adults experience significant mobility difficulties, often resulting from visual, orthopaedic or neurological disabilities. Mobility aids such as white canes, precanes, wheelchairs or walkers are already broadly used to overcome these mobility limitations. Unfortunately, due to visual and/or cognitive impairments, many people in need of such aids cannot use them safely. Navigation assistance can be of great help in these situations, enabling a larger set of disabled people to move autonomously. While navigation assistance can be sometimes enforced by directly controlling the mobility aid (e.g. wheelchair) in assist-as-needed (shared control) or autonomous ways, it is proven empowering to do a task yourself rather than having a machine do it for you. 

To achieve effective navigation while leaving users in control of their motion, we wish to implement a solution based on sensory substitution and compensation: DORNELL uses multimodal ungrounded (tactile) haptic feedback. Differently from standard kinesthetic haptics, ungrounded haptic feedback is capable of providing rich and diverse information while leaving the users free to move as they wish. Coupled with proper sensing and understanding of the environment, this solution provides a new and promising approach able to enhance the mobility of a large set of users. In other words, our proposal will enrich the perception and understanding of the user in order to compensate for one or more deficiencies.

To cope with users’ aspiration and needs, we propose to enhance the mobility capacities of people with disabilities by defining a generic haptic interface in the form of a shapeable, multimodal haptic handle that can be adapted to both the user needs and the mobility aid. Our objective is to provide a truly useful and effective device to improve the self-esteem and autonomy of people with disabilities, making a real positive change in their lives. To foster the acceptance of the proposed solution and prevent any mismatch between the users expectations and the final design, we propose to follow a pragmatic and iterative process that includes at each stage clinicians and users. Regular clinical trials will allow us to validate any successive development of the proposed device, leading to the continuous integration of the different hardware and software components. We envisage different and progressive evaluation scenarios of assisted indoor navigation, ranging from collision avoidance to long-term navigation, in clinical structures and in public spaces such as metro and train stations, with various inclusion criteria with respect to the participant pathologies, deficiencies, age, and gender.


DORNELL revolves around six grand objectives:

O1. define a series of guidelines and requirements for the design and acceptance of haptic-enabled devices, directly interacting with people with disabilities and healthcare professionals through subjective questionnaires and human subject studies.

O2. design and fabricate a multimodal, multisensory, ergonomic, soft, compact, portable, customizable handle able to provide multiple haptic sensations as well as sense how the user interacts with it. We will make use of innovative shapeable materials, 3D/4D printing techniques, multimodal actuation technologies, and perceptual illusions to deliver complex yet intuitive haptic sensations. Sensors embedded in the handle will register inputs and intentions of the user which will be used to control the assistive device. Our design will be parametric and customizable, so that it can be adapted to a user specific needs before fabrication, as well as to the target mobility device.

O3. develop versatile and modular APIs and interaction techniques to achieve compelling interactions with the device, from simple information delivery up to complex exploration and navigation tasks. We will employ performant, standard, and template-based programming solutions to guarantee high control loop rates as well as to ease the use and customization of the developed interactions to different user wishes, capabilities, and mobility aids. We will study how to best interact with the handle in a way that the provided information is perceived as intuitive and requires little training to understand.

O4. define methodologies for evaluating the performance of the system and the medical condition of the users in clinical trials. Interaction techniques and human-machine interactions, as well as social acceptance, will be evaluated through human subjects studies. Their results will be analyzed using appropriate statistical analysis techniques.

O5. improve the performance of simple and complex tasks when using our haptic handle with white canes, precanes, power wheelchairs, and walkers with respect to using other commercially-available solutions. We will test our device with patients having different types and levels of disabilities. We will evaluate both objective metrics, such as the performance in navigating in an unknown environment and avoiding obstacles, and subjective metrics, such as user’s comfort, acceptance, and ease of use. The proposed handle will be interfaced with external sensors specific to each mobility platform.

O6. disseminate the results of the project to the public and stakeholders as well as exploit them in terms of business opportunity, technology transfer, and innovation. We will disseminate the results of the project by publishing in international research journals and conferences, as well as through scientific magazines and general-public newspapers. We will also work on the translational aspects of the project, to achieve a prototype having a high Technology Readiness Level.

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