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News . Feature Stories . CIA senior’s design earns international award


February 08, 2023

CIA senior’s design earns international award

Charlotte Brittain’s Chi system for the visually impaired is recognized by the International Housewares Association

The Chi system for visually impaired people, designed by CIA Industrial Design senior Charlotte Brittain, earned her a third-place prize in the International Housewares Association’s 30th annual Student Design Competition.

By Michael C. Butz

The Cleveland Institute of Art community understands that good design improves lives. The latest example of that comes from Industrial Design senior Charlotte Brittain, who designed the Chi—a tactile safety system that protects the visually impaired from overhead hazards not easily detected by other means.

It’s a potentially life-altering device for many, and Brittain’s design earned her a third-place prize in the International Housewares Association’s 30th annual Student Design Competition.

“During my design process, I constantly thought about how someone with low vision would interact with my product in an attempt to make it as user-friendly as possible,” Brittain says of Chi.

Elegant products that simplify consumers’ lives captured top prizes in the Student Design Competition, which challenges college students to redesign a current housewares product to meet the needs of the future or to create a concept for a new product. Winning projects were selected for their innovation, understanding of production and marketing principles and quality of entry materials.

CIA caught up with Brittain, a native of Frederick, Md., to ask her more about Chi and winning the award.

Congratulations on this award! How does it feel to have your work recognized?
It’s really exciting and rewarding as a graduating senior to get recognition as I finish up my last semester in the design program. It’s really rewarding to see my progress throughout the last three years and know it’s just the beginning of my career.

Will you describe Chi? What were you thinking about during the design process?
Chi is a tactile safety system for visual assistance providing discrete hazard awareness. It’s a system of wearable sensory devices for the visually impaired, consisting of a visual sensor, vibrating feedback units, a digital data hub and charging home that avoids frustrating connection ports. It uses LiDAR, a laser beam technology, and theoretically meets the needs of the visually impaired inexpensively. The Chi system solves the problem of overhead hazards not easily detected by someone's poor vision or traditional white cane.

The Chi detecting unit is a small wearable that clips to your shirt via a magnetic piece and then sends off LiDAR light beams continuously to detect the distance of the nearest hazard to the person. LiDAR (light detection and ranging) uses eye-safe laser beams to “see” the world in 3D, providing machines and computers an accurate representation of the surveyed environment. The laser travels to the object and is reflected back to the source and the time taken for the laser to be reflected back is then used to calculate the distance. Because of the speed and accuracy of the laser pulses from LiDAR sensors, the data can be collected fast and with utmost accuracy.

Receiving data from the Chi detecting unit, the Chi feedback units are wristbands that send instant vibrations that will indicate what side, the proximity, and if the hazard is above or below you by increasing the vibrations from the Chi detecting unit.

What inspired you to design this project?
A few years ago, me and a group of designers and multi-disciplinary students worked on a semester project with the Cleveland Sight Center to improve the use of vending machines for the visually impaired and blind. During this process, we saw all the assistive devices they had in the center and interviewed visually impaired clients. This experience was eye-opening and I developed a ton of empathy about processes that I take for granted as a sighted person.

Additionally, I learned early in my research for this project that statistics show more than 10 percent of visually impaired people have sight-related accidents more than once a week, and almost a quarter of those accidents require medical intervention. This motivated me to design a cost-effective, user-friendly, technology-based system that would serve blind and visually impaired people better than a white cane alone can.

As you designed it, what did you learn along the way? And in what ways did your CIA professors assist you?
In my research, the key takeaways that influenced my design were that those who are visually impaired fall, trip and bump into midriff- to head-height obstacles a few times a week, but that very few products on the market seem concerned with solving this problem in a cost-effective manner.

All of my industrial design professors encourage us to think independently but are there to support their students and collaborate. Throughout the last three years, the projects and courses at CIA have helped me develop my skill set in the design process.

What advice might you offer to other design students who are working on projects or who might want to enter something of theirs in a competition?
I would advise students working on a project for IHA to put all the skills that the Industrial Design program has been helping them to develop into the project. Putting in your best effort and listening to feedback in critiques along your design process can only benefit you in this competition. Entering competitions is a great way to push yourself and your portfolio to the next level, and the opportunity for professional feedback is valuable.

What's next for your winning design? What are your plans after graduation?
I am working on a prototype now and will show it March 4–7 during The Inspired Home Show 2023 at Chicago’s McCormick Place, an expense-paid trip to the major trade show that is showcasing the latest innovations. I’ll be able to share my project and network with many professionals.

Currently, I’m beginning to look for full-time opportunities in design following graduation. It would be great to land a job at an innovative, high-energy workplace that focuses on sustainable products.

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