This designer's wearable device could transform how the visually impaired navigate

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After spending some time working in the fashion industry, Keith Kirkland decided to leave it altogether in pursuit of something bolder. As a huge fan of "The Matrix," he wanted to see if it was possible to create a suit "that would allow a person to download an advanced movement" — a concept born out of a scene in which the film's protagonist Neo learns combat training via a computer program.

"I saw 'The Matrix' way too many times and was like, 'Wow, download kung fu, I wish you could do that,'" Kirkland told In The Know. "And I was like, 'Wait, actually, you can kind of do that.'"

That curiosity ultimately led to Kirkland's interest in haptics, or the study of interaction through touch. He first developed a sleeve that would measure the speed and power of one's punch before going on to co-found Brooklyn-based WearWorks, a haptics design company, in 2015.

"For me, it was really important to kind of do stuff that was meaningful in my life mainly because I want to show people that whatever it is that you envision the world to be is a possibility," he explained.

Along with co-founders Kevin Yoo and Yangyang Wang, Kirkland built several prototypes and eventually came up with Wayband. The wearable device gives the visually impaired "continuous feedback the same way vision does" by transmitting vibrations that allow them to navigate more easily.

"We didn't set out to build a blind device," Kirkland said. "We're not doing assistive technology. We're doing inclusive technology."

In 2017, Simon Wheatcroft, a runner, became not only the first person to put WearWorks' novel invention to use in a marathon but also the first visually impaired athlete to run long distance unaided and unassisted.

"What they’ve understood is that it’s not about the maps," Wheatcroft said of the company, in an interview with the Verge that year. "It’s about how you communicate with a person. With verbal systems, you need to lose one of your senses for directions; hearing becomes dedicated to navigation. By using touch, which isn’t often used, you still leave audio free."

Following years of experimentation, Kirkland and his team launched a Wayband on Kickstarter in February 2020. But WearWorks doesn't plan on stopping there, he said.

"In the future, I imagine that, instead of using vibrating motors, you would have a layer of skin that could individually excite each different type of touch receptor," Kirkland said. "We could potentially build design that is intuitively generated for different touch experiences."

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