Putting SUNU to the test

Perkins students, staff take award-winning navigation tool for a spin

A student uses SUNU to locate doorways in a long hallway.

Rob, a Perkins student, uses the navigational wristband SUNU to locate doorways during a testing session for the device. Photo credit: Anna Miller

December 30, 2014

No one likes waiting in line at the bank, least of all Perkins teacher Kate Katulak. Because she is visually impaired, Katulak sometimes has trouble keeping tabs on the person in front of her, which can lead to some awkward moments.

“With a guide dog you have to constantly ask people, ‘Excuse me, are you moving up?’” she explained. “And if I say ‘forward’ to my dog she’s going to lead me right around people… so I cut a lot of lines.”

Enter SUNU (formerly known as Ustraap), a wristband that uses an ultrasonic sensor to detect obstacles and vibrate as they come closer. Someone wearing SUNU while waiting in line can feel the vibrations lessening as the person in front of them advances, prompting them to move forward themselves.

Katulak was able to try the product for herself during a recent two-day testing session run by SUNU and Perkins Products to gather feedback on the wristband, which is still in the prototype phase. Perkins Products staff formed a makeshift line, and Katulak practiced moving forward an appropriate distance behind them. On the first try, she was able to mirror the movement of the person in front of her.

“The band pulsated, and the pulsation kept getting lighter and lighter so I moved toward you,” she said. “That’s pretty cool.”

SUNU touts itself primarily as a navigational device, designed to help people who are blind avoid low-hanging tree branches or find doorways in a room. But during testing, SUNU’s chief strategy officer Fernando Albertorio was interested in hearing what other uses people came up with after wearing the wristband for the first time.

“To be honest with you, this is a use we hadn’t even thought of,” he said, referring to standing in line. “These two days are really about learning as much as we can in order to make improvements to the product and inform our launch and how we market it.”

SUNU and Perkins have been working together ever since SUNU (then known as Ustraap) won the Perkins Technology Sidecar Prize as part of MassChallenge, a Boston-based competition for entrepreneurs. Once a prototype of the band was developed, Albertorio tapped Perkins Products Director Joe Martini to recruit testers for the device who might use it in different ways.

“It hadn’t been tested with people who use guide dogs, individuals with low vision, or people who are deafblind,” said Martini. 

During testing, each user donned a SUNU band and practiced using the vibration feedback to gauge distances, avoid obstacles and locate doorways. In one exercise, Albertorio held a plastic tree branch out at eye level, and asked testers to stop before walking into it. Perkins Products technology specialist Joann Becker, who uses a cane to navigate, said walking into stray branches is one of her biggest pet peeves. During the test, she strode quickly toward the branch, but stopped just inches away from it.

“Wow,” she said. “I could feel that it was there all of a sudden. I knew if I kept going, I would hit it.”

Perkins trainer Milissa Garside, another tester, wasn’t as worried about hitting things at eye level. “I’m short, so I don’t run into a lot of that,” she said, but like most people who tried SUNU, she had ideas for other uses.

“I would love to use this to locate a (traffic) light pole when I want to press the ‘walk’ button,” she said. “This would be so helpful, you have no idea.”