Wearable Tech Helps Blind Marathon Runner Go the Extra Mile

The device utilizes haptic technology to help visually impaired people navigate the world.

Oct 14, 2020

British runner Simon Wheatcroft’s athletic resume is one for the record books and no small accomplishment for any athlete, but they are especially remarkable considering the fact that Wheatcroft is visually impaired.

Born with a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, Wheatcroft lost his functional eyesight by his teens, according to CNN. But this setback didn’t stop him. He began running on the quiet streets and trails near his home, eventually learning the routes by memory. 

Just one year later, he ran his first ultra-marathon. His remarkable accomplishments include completing  a 100-mile (160.9-km) ultra-marathon in the Cotswolds, UK, running the New York City Marathon four times, a 250-mile (402-km) race from Boston to New York City, and he became the first visually impaired person to run the 4 Deserts Race in Namibia. Wheatcroft was honored as a torchbearer for the 2012 London Olympics.

But despite these achievements, there was something Wheatcroft still hadn’t done - finish a race completely on his own. 

Blind and visually-impaired runners compete with guides by their side, to whom they may be physically tethered. According to British Blind Sport,  the guides call out water stops and potential hazards to the runners. 

Wheatcroft, according to CNN, began exploring options that could help him navigate during races without depending on a guide. He found advanced GPS devices which could give him detailed audio instructions, but for a marathon, they wouldn’t be helpful. Because of the cacophony of noise during marathons from screaming crowds and blaring music, audio cues wouldn’t suffice.

In 2016, Wheatcroft began working with New York-based tech startup WearWorks, which was founded by a trio of graduate students at New York’s Pratt Institute, brainstorming on a device that would help him navigate via his sense of touch. Working together, the Wayband was born.

The device utilizes haptic technology, also known as 3D touch, to help blind people navigate the world by keeping the user on a set course by registering a preprogrammed route as a “virtual corridor.” Vibrations let the user know when they’re off track. It works, according to The Verge because Wayband  is paired with the user’s phone and utilizes GPS to create and map the route.

 
 
 
 
 
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Excited by the device’s potential, WearWorks decided on a very public debut for the Wayband. Wheatcroft used the device during the 2017 New York City Marathon, with the goal of finishing the race without the support of a guide.

At first, the device worked. But between the thousands of mobile phones in use at the event and “dead zones” caused by skyscrapers, the Wayband had trouble with connectivity and receiving signals. Rain, a factor the team hadn't considered, further impaired the device’s functioning.

For the final 10 miles (16 kms) of the marathon, Wheatcroft ran as he’d done in the past, with guides who called out instructions to help him avoid obstacles and navigate around turns in the route. After crossing the finish line, Wheatcroft said he was disappointed that he had to complete the race assisted by guides.

“We had every single problem possible,” Kevin Yoo, one of the founders of WearWorks told The Verge. “There [were] lots of high-rises causing signal issues, issues with navigation while crossing bridges. We did the hardest thing we could do: testing the Wayband during the marathon.”

But Wheatcroft doesn’t see this as a setback, but rather as an opportunity to keep going. “As a blind person, you always strive for independence,” he said. “But it’s a bit of a contradiction, because oftentimes, you’re using somebody with sight to become independent. What we’re trying to do is use this technology to really achieve true independence. This race isn’t about time, it’s proving that something is possible.”

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LAUREN MARCUS, CONTRIBUTOR
Fascinated by storytelling since childhood, Lauren is passionate about the written word. She’s a freelance writer who has covered everything from the latest developments in tech to geopolitics. When she’s not writing, Lauren is interested in genealogical research and family folklore.