Finding Your Way(band)

Posted by on Sep 16, 2020 in Science and Technology

Running a marathon is extremely difficult, even under the best of circumstances. But runners with disabilities may face a whole host of additional challenges. Here, btw takes a look at the unique story of a runner named Simon Wheatcroft, and how new technology helped make it possible for him to run the New York City Marathon independently, despite being legally blind.

The Athlete

Simon Wheatcroft, 38, is from Doncaster, England. In his late teens, Simon lost his sight due to a rare genetic eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa. Nevertheless, he began running in 2010, and since then has participated in several marathons (and even one “ultramarathon”–a 100-mile race). How is such a thing possible? Usually, blind athletes run races by tethering themselves to a sighted guide (another runner who is not vision impaired). But Simon’s story is unique because in 2017, he became the first vision-impaired person to attempt to run the New York City Marathon solo, without the use of a guide.

The Technology

So how was Simon, who is legally blind, able to run a marathon on his own? He used technology called a Wayband. Worn on the wrist, much like a step-tracker, the Wayband connects to a phone app and uses very precise GPS technology to help guide the wearer. If you stray to the left or right of your determined path, the device alerts you with a series of small vibrations. Though similar technology already existed, Wayband is unique because it uses vibrations instead of audio signals to alert the wearer. This slight different is important because the device is silent, allowing the wearer to pay attention to other potential threats, such as cars or (in Simon’s case) other runners in the wearer’s path.

The Outcome

So how did Simon’s first independent marathon go? The first sixteen miles went smoothly, but then the GPS in the Wayband lost its signal, and so Wheatcroft used a sighted guide for the final ten miles of the race. Wayband is going to market in 2021, but right now it should only be used in conjunction with other aides, like a guide dog or a cane. As GPS technology improves, the Wayband should become more accurate. WearWorks hopes that the device will eventually be able to function independently.

It’s important to remember that technology like this has important complications that go far beyond the realm of competitive sports. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 2.2 billion people around the world are visually impaired or blind. So technology like the Wayband has the potential to help millions of people lead more independent lives. 

Dig Deeper Visit to learn more about the Wayband. What is meant by the term “virtual corridor”?