How One Teen Invented a Wearable Device to Help the Newly Blind

High school senior Jordana Gotlieb created the B.E.L.T. (Blind Enhanced Location Technology) to assist visually impaired people to navigate around obstacles.
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High school senior Jordana Gotlieb created the B.E.L.T. (Blind Enhanced Location Technology) to assist visually impaired people to navigate around obstacles.
B.E.L.T. (Photo courtesy of Jordana Gotlieb)

Jordana Gotlieb wearing the B.E.L.T. (Photo courtesy of Jordana Gotlieb)

On the surface, 18-year-old Jordana Gotlieb may seem like a typical high school senior at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles. She’s involved in sports — varsity swimming and varsity water polo — as well as high school clubs like the robotics club and the United Synagogue Youth. And, like many other seniors across the country, she’s eagerly waiting to hear back from colleges — particularly the University of Southern California and Georgia Tech.

But most other high school seniors can’t say they’ve successfully created a product designed to help the blind or visually impaired, entered it into numerous competitions and placed high every time.

Gotlieb remembers when she first got the idea to create what she now calls the B.E.L.T. (Blind Enhanced Location Technology) that was designed to assist visually impaired people to navigate around obstacles. In her sophomore year of high school, she signed up for a science research class — a three-year program in which students research any science subject of interest and receive guidance from mentors to progress their studies through experiments — with a broad interest in studying the visually impaired. When her teacher informed the class about the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge, an annual innovation and entrepreneurial competition that involves submitting an invention that will help the community or environment, Gotlieb decided to start thinking of ways to improve the lives of the disabled.

B.E.L.T. (Photo courtesy of Jordana Gotlieb)

Photo courtesy of Jordana Gotlieb

“[With the competition in mind], I focused on learning as much as I could from previous research on related, developed projects,” Gotlieb explained. “I originally had the idea of creating a glove that would navigate the blind through ultrasound sensors to detect objects at a distance away from the user. Through that, it would read back through vibrations.”

Though Gotlieb entered the 2012-13 and 2013-14 Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenges with her glove invention, she modified her creation for this past year’s competition.

“With the glove, there were difficulties with height differences and it wasn’t completely hands free, so I switched the idea over to the B.E.L.T., which is completely hands free,” Gotlieb said.

The B.E.L.T. is equipped with a CPU (central processing unit) — where the code is stored for the B.E.L.T. to function — and three Lego ultrasonic sensors, which are able to detect objects in a frontal distance, according to Gotlieb.

“When the user puts the B.E.L.T. around their waist, the ultrasound sensors detect the distance between the user and the closest object toward them,” she explained. “Depending on which sensor is triggered, the user will feel a vibration associated with the location of the obstacle.”

B.E.L.T. (Photo courtesy of Jordana Gotlieb)

Photo courtesy of Jordana Gotlieb

Gotlieb placed as a semi-finalist in the three years she entered the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge. In addition, Gotlieb entered her B.E.L.T. in the 2015 Intel Science Talent Search — the nation’s most prestigious pre-college science competition — in which she tested 22 subjects with her creation and wrote a formal research paper about the B.E.L.T. The 22 participants went through a maze wearing the B.E.L.T. and had chairs placed in front of them as obstacles.

“I wrote the research paper on the test trials of a working prototype of my device,” Gotlieb said. “I tested blindfolded people and it was perfect because this represented newly blind people who weren’t used to enhanced sound or touch senses. That’s exactly what I wanted to do … to make an invention for the newly blind.”

Creating the B.E.L.T. — and modifying it — was no easy feat. Gotlieb says that the product took about three to four months to make, and the process was especially challenging because it involved lots of complicated software and coding — something that was foreign to her until this past year.

“My main issue was coding, because I had never taken a computer science class until this past year,” Gotlieb said. “Most of the challenges that I faced were either mechanical issues or coding issues. I took A.P. computer science to understand exactly how the [coding] process works.”

B.E.L.T. (Photo courtesy of Jordana Gotlieb)

Photo courtesy of Jordana Gotlieb

Even though the competitions are now over, Gotlieb is still making modifications to her B.E.L.T. She plans on adding at least one more feature to her product — object identification.

“This was one major aspect that I wasn’t able to put on the B.E.L.T. yet [for the competition],” she said. “With object identification, the user can identify what they need and the B.E.L.T. will scan the room for the object. Once it’s found, the user will be guided to that specific object.”

Creating the B.E.L.T. is just the beginning of Gotlieb’s career aspirations. The high schooler already has goals to major in biomedical engineering and minor in entrepreneurship. She’s currently in the middle of writing a provisional patent for B.E.L.T., a detailed process but one that Gotlieb knows will be beneficial in the future.

“A lot of engineers are able to make products, but they don’t have the business aspect of marketing their products,” she explained. “I hope to not only build and develop new products, but to be able to market them as well and start my own company as an entrepreneur.”