The Ohio State University Alumni Association

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Patrick Kastner

Smart paint for safe pedestrians

Ohio State and partners are innovating navigation for people with visual impairments.

We live in a world of smart devices: phones, thermostats, even doorbells. Professor of Materials Science Engineering John Lannutti is working with partners in the corporate world, other universities and the city of Columbus to add to that list a type of smart paint that helps people with visual impairments become safer and more confident pedestrians.

The idea for smart paint — standard road paint infused with an oxide additive — sparked during a call with longtime collaborators at Intelligent Material Solutions, a New Jersey company developing products that leverage the properties of rare-earth crystals. The paint is detectable only by specially modified canes designed to provide accurate, real-time location guidance to the visually impaired. Lannutti and his collaborators soon asked the Ohio State School for the Blind, located just a few miles north of campus, whether students would like to test the technology. They agreed enthusiastically.

The city of Columbus mixed 3,000 pounds of thermoplastic smart paint and repainted the school’s crosswalks. Lannutti’s Ohio State team and colleagues at Western Michigan University are gathering data on the paint’s effectiveness.

Already the team has made refinements. “Version 1.0 of the cane vibrated and made a beeping noise. Based on feedback, we realized the cane didn’t need to make noise,” Lannutti says. “A key aspect of orientation and mobility training is listening to the environment very carefully as part of navigation, so the latest version has just the vibration.”

This vibration occurs when the cane tip encounters the smart paint, warning users from stepping into the wrong area of an intersection. The smart cane also can notify vehicles — even autonomous ones — of a crosswalk in use by a blind person.

“It’s a very different experience now walking down the street and seeing blind and visually impaired users. It’s sort of opened my eyes to what that component of the population has to go through every day.” John Lannutti, professor of Materials Science Engineering

About the author

Brooke Preston

Brooke Preston is a lifestyle, culture and comedy writer based in Columbus.