Exclusive: Students develop tech to help a blind veteran use the treadmill
DAYTON, Ohio (WKEF/WRGT)- Larry Gunter was a crew chief on C-130s jets for the Air Force but forced to retire early after developing an eye disease in his late 20's. He was legally blind by 31.
Gunter was married with two sons were nine and six-years-old when he lost his vision.
"I was their role model; you know as their father. So, you know, I didn't want to disappoint them or my wife and also, you know, I had pride in myself. So, I wasn't going to let my disability defeat me," Gunter said.
Gunter stays very active, working whenever he can.
"I ride an indoor bike trainer. I also ride outdoors on a tandem bike. I do an indoor rowing machine. I run on the treadmill at the [YMCA]," Gunter said. "I'd love to be able to run on the treadmill like a natural motion. Where I can swing my arms and run like I was running outside with somebody or just like anybody with sight.”
This is where Quality of Life Plus comes in. QL+ is a non-profit organization that sponsored a project at the University of Dayton to create a system that would let Gunter run without holding on to the treadmill.
Marc Wautelet, a senior at the University of Dayton, was one of the four who helped design the system.
"They just kind of introduced the project as helping a blind man run on a treadmill," Wautelet said.
Wautelet said he knew he wanted to make an impact in people’s lives with his work.
"When I was younger I always thought, 'How can I, what am I going to be able to do to help impact people's lives?'" Wautelet said. "Being able to say that I'm helping to improve somebody's quality of life is a pretty great feeling. It's what I want to accomplish. It's what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Wautelet said.
The device had to be lightweight, durable, portable and most important simple to use.
"This one I felt like I could tackle with electronics. so, I really wanted to get on board with it. So, I chose it and it was really nice because it was a design for a person and [Quality of Life Plus] helps veterans and first responders and I thought that was a pretty noble cause and I wanted to get on board with that," Connor Tangney, a senior at UD said.
The students, all in the University of Dayton School of Engineering's Innovation Center began working on the device last September.
"One of the first things we did was, Marc and I put blindfolds on and ran on this treadmill here. We just wanted to get a feel for what it was like," Jeffrey LeCave another senior at UD said.
But the team knew until they had Gunter try out the system, they would not know how well it worked.
"We can blindfold ourselves and run but we don't really know how it feels for someone who's been blind for several years and has gotten used to the feeling of how it feels for him to run.”
The system they came up with allows Gunter to center himself on the treadmill using a strap. The system uses a camera to keep track of Gunter and when he goes too far left or right, motors in a belt around Gunter’s waist vibrate to let him know to move the other way.
"We knew if we screwed today up, [Gunter] is never going to want to use something we [made] again," LeCave said.
To everyone’s relief, Gunter felt confident enough in the system to give it a try running while at the university.
"I felt very safe and comfortable and that's the main thing is safety. You can't do it if you don't feel safe," Gunter said.
"We're not blind. We can close our eyes and pretend but we're always kind of unsure with our eyes closed. He's lived with this. So, the fact that he was comfortable with our device made us a lot more sure about our design," Mitchell Wernet, also a senior at UD said.
Gunter said he would be happy to take it home with him as is.
"The more you do it, the more comfortable you get doing it. So, I can see myself running 8 1/2-9 minute miles on the treadmill," Gunter said.
"It worked so much better than I thought it would. I was so happy to see that he was just all gung ho for it. He said 'I could take this right now and I'd be happy,'" Wautelet said.
“I was very nervous. Mostly for his sake because I knew the design should work but having him running on a treadmill 10 minutes after starting to use [the system], It kind of stressed me out a little bit but it seemed like it worked. It worked better the faster he was going just because he wasn't trying to run forward on it too much," Tangney said.
Gunter hopes he can be a role model for young children with disabilities.
"Maybe some parent has a blind child and they see this [story] and they think 'You know what? I can get them involved in something," Gunter said.
While the device was built for Gunter, it has the potential to be adapted for anyone else.
"I want them to know that you can still achieve stuff and don't feel like you're a victim," Gunter said.