Review by Ashlie McCrae
The Miniguide US is a handheld device that registers with pulses and vibrations when it detects objects in its path. The technical term for this technology is haptic feedback. It gives the user useful information about their environment but is not intended to replace primary mobility aids such as a cane or guide dog.
The device is roughly shaped like a nine-volt battery with a cap on the front end, a lanyard slot and an audio jack on the back end, a small battery compartment along the length facing down, and two distinct round buttons along the length facing up. It is about 3.15 inches long, 1.5 inches wide, and 0.91 inches deep. Since my device has a wrist lanyard, I put it on to avoid dropping it, as this may destroy the vibration motor. A neck lanyard can also be inserted, but it doesn’t come in the box.
If I’m holding the device correctly, the buttons should be facing upward and the cap should be facing away from me. The importance of the cap is that it covers the mesh that protects the vibration sensors, which are not dust or water resistant. Therefore it is a good idea to put the cap back on after using the device. Also, because it protects the sensors, they won’t work properly if you forget to take the cap off of the device while it is in use.
Using the Device
Holding it with my palm facing upward so that my thumb can easily reach the two buttons, I then press the front one, that is, the one furthest away from my body, to power the device on. It’ll give a quick, strong vibration every time the button is pushed, whether I am turning it on or off. (Note: when the battery is low, the device will vibrate five times in succession when powered off. More about that in the “Battery” section.) After it is powered on, it’ll start pulsing or vibrating right away if it detects an object within range.
The Miniguide US has an option for audio feedback. Since it does not come with a built-in speaker, a pair of headphones or ear buds need to be plugged into the audio jack on the back end if audio feedback is desired. The headphones will beep in correspondence with each vibration. In other words, the faster the vibration, the more frequent the beeps
The Miniguide comes with a 3V lithium battery that can take 100 hours of continuous vibrations. However, if you’re using the advanced settings, which I will cover in a later section, and you want to use audio only, it boosts the battery to about 1000 straight hours of continuous beeping. If the battery dies, it needs to be replaced; it is not rechargeable.
There are five different ranges I can set for the Miniguide, each of which is better for a certain type of environment. Later, I will give more detail on what specific ranges can be used for the various rooms in my house. But for now, here are the five ranges, both in meters and in feet: 4 meters (13.12 feet), 2 meters, (6.6 feet), 1 meter, (3.3 feet), a half meter, (1.5 feet), and 8 meters, (26.25 feet).
Exploring My House
When in big open spaces such as the entrance to a bedroom or my downstairs and upstairs living rooms, the device would not pulse at all depending on the range. If there is an object such as a piece of furniture within a big open space, however, it may pulse every two to three seconds. If I deliberately point the device to one of these objects, the pulsing would become more frequent. The closer i get, the more it would pulse until finally it would be continuously vibrating. Generally I use the 6.6 or 3.3 foot range for areas where there isn’t much furniture, or where the furniture is not in the middle of the floor, but rather, around the edges of the room.
In cramped spaces such as a bathroom, or our tiny kitchen, the device would pulse much more frequently, a few times a second in fact. Generally I would use a 3.3 foot or 1.5 foot range in places such as these, or where there is furniture that has been placed close together. This is true of the bedroom once I pass the entrance, which is an empty space, and the bed, which is the first piece of furniture I come to and the only one that is in the middle of the room.
How Did It Help and What Were the Limitations?
I was more easily able to avoid certain objects that I would normally crash into, for instance, the wall separating my dining room and kitchen, the broom hanging on that wall, the objects on the floor in the living room, and best of all, a partially opened door! Although I have some vision, namely light, and dark contrast, I don’t trust it since it varies between environments depending on the lighting. Thus it helps to have the device vibrate so I know to be aware of an object that I might otherwise not “see” until it is too late and I’ve already hit it. The door leading from the dining room into the upstairs living room has always proved particularly challenging because it has glass panes in it, through which I can see the light from whichever room is on the other side. If that door is partially open as mentioned above, my vision deceives me by telling me there’s nothing in front of me. But if I have my Miniguide with me, it detects the door so I know to avoid it.
One limitation, or so I thought at first, was the constant vibration in cramped spaces. In my small bathroom, it detected all the walls at once. With the device constantly vibrating no matter which direction I turned, how would I know if it was sensing one of the walls or the sink for example? The same limitation applied to my small kitchen as well. But this is where changing the range, preferably to 1.5 feet, has proven to be quite useful.
Another feature that helps navigate cramped spaces is called gap finding. By holding down the back button, you can allow the device to stop vibrating once it detects a gap between objects that are close together, for instance, the wall and the sink in my cramped bathroom, or even the furniture that is close together in the bedroom. Gap finding can also be used to navigate doorways, staircases, and even objects in a backyard, as I’ll mention later. You may also notice it allows you to find a corner if you are far enough away from it.
Exploring my Backyard
Even more impressive, the Miniguide US helped me to explore my backyard better. My favorite object there is the swing set, but it can be hard to get to when I’m using just my cane and what little vision I have. Without the Miniguide, I can usually find the wooden poles that separate the swings because they are white and glare in my face when the sun is out. But I can never find the swings themselves because they are above cane level, and are to me as dark as the grass. The bright sunlight almost obstructs my color contrast, making darker objects harder to see. However, with the device in hand, I was able to find the swing itself in a much shorter time than usual. The trick was to find the pole, then hold the device at stomach or calf level depending on how height of the swing.
Exploring Crowded Areas
I also took the liberty of using the Miniguide US to walk around Southpoint Mall, a large indoor/outdoor complex in Durham, NC. If this device did wonders in the backyard, then it moved mountains in the mall!!! I kept it powered on for almost a solid two hours because my friend and I were moving from store to store and my experiences in each one differed. For example, the Apple store is well organized, and I noticed a big empty space as we entered. But as we approached the display stand where the iPhone X’s were located, it started buzzing, which was exactly what I needed it to do so I wouldn’t bump into the shelf in my excitement. In contrast, Bath and Body Works was crowded with so many shelves that it was hard to find the empty spaces, so be aware that the more tightly packed the space, the harder it is to find individual objects and gaps. Gap finder and a range of 1.5 feet is highly recommended in stores like these.
(Note: I noticed a glitch in which the device would not detect people walking by when gap finder was in use. However, this may not be everyone’s experience.)
Other Stores Besides the Mall
Since I had not found the gap feature and the range changing feature by time I explored the mall, I decided to take it into three other stores while I was shopping for the Holidays. First, I went to a consignment store called My Secret Closet in Hillsborough, NC, which is similar to Bath and Body Works in terms of its crowdedness. There were skinny spaces and shelves all around me, and the racks were round. My device detected racks that were placed diagonally in the aisles, which made for a messy situation. I couldn’t figure out what range I needed, as 1.5 was too little. In this case, I would bump into a shelf since I was almost upon it by time the device detected it. But when I changed the range to 3.3 feet, I could detect objects a little better, but I still didn’t know the store well enough to be confident walking through it without tripping over something that was placed on the floor. Gap finder worked in the store, but some gaps were too small for me to crawl through. In other aisles, gap finder wouldn’t work at all because the objects were too close in front of me. In this case, the Miniguide was doing its job, but there are some stores that simply aren’t suited for visually impaired people.
I had always been skeptical about the use of haptic technologies for the blind, since they could never replace my trusty white cane and iPhone. Why would I need another device to carry around? However, after my testing it for roughly four weeks in various situations, I was able to conclude that having a Miniguide US is indeed a helpful tool. It can be used without a cane if a blind person knows their house but needs to watch out for messes they’ve created, or furniture they’ve rearranged recently and are not quite used to the setup. If someone is afraid of big open spaces as I tend to be, they’ll be more comfortable whether they are in a yard and need to get to a lawn chair or swing, or they’re shopping at the mall and don’t want to be in someone else’s space. In public it does work well alongside a white cane, avoiding crowds and watching for store shelves and racks, some of which may be above cane level. Would I get one? Yes. The only limitations I’ve observed are the battery compartment, the stores that are overcrowded, the device’s inability to recognize people walking by when gap finder is in use, and the frustration of not being able to use it while needing to do something else with my hands. The gap finding features and the changing of the ranges make this device more powerful than I ever anticipated. Clearly, the benefits of this device outweigh the limitations of not being able to use it as my main guide.
MiniGuide US from NC Assistive Technology Program on Vimeo.
The North Carolina Assistive Technology Program (NCATP) leads North Carolina's efforts to carry out the federal Assistive Technology Act of 2004. We promote independence for people with disabilities through access to technology.
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NCATP staff are not employees of nor do they have a financial relationship with the supplier of any item being demonstrated. NCATP staff do not endorse one item over another and can provide information for the purpose of demonstration and assessment only.
NC Assistive Technology is a program within the NC Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, NC Dept. of Health and Human Services.