'They called me Joe 90': Scottish Braille Press employee Jim McCafferty on trialling a futuristic navigation gadget in the 1970s

Posted: 01/08/2016 | ,

In a world of self-parking cars, augmented reality games and voice-controlled mobile phones, advances in technology are becoming ever more futuristic.

But in 1971 when Scottish Braille Press worker, Jim McCafferty, was asked to trial a new gadget to help blind people navigate using sound, his friends found the device so space-age they nicknamed him ‘Joe 90’.

The Sonicguide (Mark Two) was mounted on the user’s head and appeared to the casual observer almost like a standard pair of spectacles.

But the guide, powered by a battery pack, emitted ultrasound which, on contact with obstacles within the area covered, were returned to the user in the form of audible sounds within the human hearing range.

Although the gadget never caught on for use in the mainstream – the Sonicguides weren’t available on the NHS and too expensive for most people to afford at around £3,795 latterly - the device was an important step forward in the development of assistive technology.

Jim, pictured right, was one of around 30 people in the UK in the 1970s to use a Sonicguide – relying in part on the device for around 15 years.

After leaving the Royal Blind School, during a mobility training programme, he was invited to take part in a national trial of the guide, organised by two sector-leading organisations.

He travelled to Birmingham to take part in the month-long evaluation led by Orientation and Mobility Instructors, Patrick Cave-Browne and Peter Ryding.

“It felt like an adventure to me,” he recalled. “I had never been to Birmingham, I had never been on a sleeper train before so it was all unknown. I found the whole experience very exciting.” 

Jim’s training took place at Queen Alexandra College and began with simple exercises such as walking in a straight line and navigating around poles.

The Sonicguide used a ‘binaural sensor’ which swept the area in front of the user with ultrasound. Two receivers picked up the reflected rays to produce separate sound for each ear.

Because the guide was sensitive to different materials, Jim was quite quickly able to differentiate between the sorts of materials he could ‘hear’.

“It was confusing at first,” he said. “But after a couple of weeks I was able to navigate through obstacles on the streets, crates, window cleaners’ ladders, pedestrians. I could hear wooden gates and roadside barriers. It was quite amazing.”

After completion of the training programme, giving his feedback on the device, Jim continued to trial the Sonicguide at home in Glasgow – navigating the city centre and underground with the device and his long cane.

He also used the guide to navigate to and from work at the Scottish Braille Press in Edinburgh.

He said he was often approached by people who were curious about the Sonicguide.

“When I returned home, people had a lot of questions for me, they weren’t used to seeing this sort of thing,” he said.

“But generally people were friendly, just curious really, it must have been quite an unusual sight. Some people told me I looked like a spaceman, and I would just laugh.”

Jim continued to use the guide for a further 15 years, speaking at events and meetings for VI organisations, and trialling new types of long cane.

He has also published his training notes from his time in Birmingham, and subsequently using the guide in day-to-day life, in the Royal Blind archive.

And he still maintains a friendship with Peter Ryding and his wife Jean, whom he visits when travelling to the midlands.

“I love technology and seeing how far we’ve come, it was a real honour to be involved in the programme and to work with such excellent mobility instructors, Patrick and Peter,” he said.

“I think it was a huge step forward for assistive technology. Today there is some fantastic technology available to blind people, large print readers and the BrailleNote for example.

“But in terms of navigation, there had been nothing quite like it. Having just left school it was an amazing adventure for me and I published my diary of those years in the hope that the achievement of those who developed the Sonicguides will live on.”