by Daphné Leprince-Ringuet
“The first time I went out running on my own, I broke down in tears. I got that real sense of freedom, of ‘I can’t believe what I’m doing’. Because it was something – the only thing – that I was doing truly independently. It felt incredible.”
Simon Wheatcroft has a progressive eye disease. Although he was born with normal vision, he lost his eyesight as he got older.
While going out for a run might seem like a routine Sunday activity to most people, for him it became a near-impossible challenge to complete alone.
Vision loss researcher Joshua Chu-Tan from the Australian National University explains that the type of disease that Simon is living with is the leading cause of blindness in the developed world, costing the world economy around 350 billion dollars a year.
Yet when Simon decided to teach himself how to run, while Silicon Valley was busy releasing the iPhone 3GS, no technology existed to help the visually impaired complete as simple an exercise as going for a 10k run.
Simon persisted. Using RunKeeper – the only app that worked through audio – he learnt how to navigate his surroundings starting with a closed football pitch. He memorised every single dip, corner and obstacle on his route, and combined it with the app’s distance markers.
One mile, expect a turn. Two miles, slump in the road. Three miles, avoid the root on the ground. His system was not perfect, but at least it gave him independence – something that most blind runners cannot enjoy.
Margareta Andersson, sound architect for Lexter Sound Designs in Stockholm, is working on a new technology that allows blind athletes to work alone, guided only by hyper directional sound.
She says: “We looked into how blindness affects performance, and we realised that if you are a runner, you have to run with a guide. You have to go hand in hand with another person. And if you are a competing athlete, that person has to be a better athlete than you.
“And we thought: ‘that’s horrendous.’ So we decided in our free time, using Lexter’s technologies, to try to make a difference.”
Project “The Impossible Run” was born, with one objective: to enable visually impaired runner Oscar Widegren to run on a track unaccompanied and in a straight line.
The team created speakers emitting hyper directional sound from the right and left sides of the track that, upon hitting the runner’s ears, allow them to find the centre of their lane and then run in a straight line.
By hearing a specific, calibrated sound in their left ear, and another in their right one, the athlete is able to visualise the track internally. Lexter’s technology therefore works for different sports that involve working within a lane – not just athletics, but also long jump for example.
“Oscar had never before in his whole life been running solo,” continues Andersson. “The day that he did was a huge moment. He went to his lane, found the centre, started running. There was absolute silence.
“Everyone could see that he was running in a straight line, and of the 30 people there who had been working on this project, not one had a dry eye.”
Andersson hopes that the technology can soon be introduced in training facilities around the world. The team wants the Swedish Parasports Federation to become owners of the project – but the eternal issue of money is still standing in the way. Finding investors to support the project is currently the main challenge.
It is the same challenge that Simon Wheatcroft is facing. He is developing a similar system that creates a virtual corridor based on sound, with the addition of an ultrasonic signal warning the runner of objects obstructing the way.
“It’s still a reasonable distance from being developed and accessible. There is a real issue of cost in the world of technology. When you make a product that is sold to a small market, the price has to be obscenely high,” he says.
Joshua Chu-Tan, on the other hand, argues that the market for technology aimed at the visually impaired is growing.
“Progressive eye disease is affecting more and more people, and in a very profound way. Perhaps we need to start thinking about vision impairment differently and stop considering it a major disability. It is more of a context that allows you to create other abilities, forcing you to use everything else around you that is not your vision.”
That is exactly what Simon Wheatcroft and Margareta Andersson are doing by using sound to recreate parts of the visual field. By offering visually impaired runners the freedom to be self-reliant, they are changing the conversation, one mile at a time.
Featured Image by McCann Stockholm