As It Happens

Audible hockey puck could revolutionize the sport for blind players, say researchers

A group of blind hockey players have been working with researchers at L'Université du Québec à Montréal to develop a new and improved hockey puck.

The prototype, which emits a constant sound, is an improvement on a steel container filled with beans

These new electronic pucks designed for blind or visually impaired players make constant noise. (Steve Vezeau via Canadian Press)
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Hockey is a game of iconic sounds, from the scrape of skates on ice to the blare of the final buzzer.

But now, a team of researchers has taken it one step further by developing an audible puck they say could revolutionize the sport for blind players. 

Currently, blind hockey is played with a puck made of steel and filled with ball bearings so that it can be heard as it travels across the ice.

The devices work, but players have trouble finding them on the ice when they stop moving and become silent.

Three years ago, Gilles Ouellet, a blind hockey player and employee of L'Université du Québec à Montréal, came up with the idea for a puck that makes a continuous sound.

Now researchers at the university have developed a prototype.

"It's going to make the game faster and more interesting," Ouellet told the Canadian Press.

Sounds like a smoke detector 

The audio puck is not exactly easy on the ears.

"[It] sounds pretty much like a smoke detector," Francois Beauregard,  who helped come up with the idea for the puck prototype, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It is not made to be harmonious or pleasant."

Beauregard  is one of the captains of the blind hockey team Les Hiboux de Montreal and a director of the charity Canadian Blind Hockey.

Watch: Les Hiboux de Montreal test out the audible puck prototype:

Les Hiboux de Montreal play a game with a new audible new puck developed by the Université du Québec à Montréal (Steve Vezeau /UQAM). 0:40

The audible puck is the same shape and colour as a standard hockey puck, but about twice the size.

It's a fairly simple device, says Beauregard, consisting of a little buzzer, a lithium ion battery and an accelerometer, which helps to track the movement.

It's also slower than a standard puck.

"And, of course, it's noisy," he said. "That's the fun part."

A history of blind hockey 

Blind hockey started in Canada 40 years ago, Beauregard says.

"For the first 30 years, blind hockey developed in different cities with different rules, [using] different objects to replace the puck, and nobody talked to each other much," Beauregard said.

"In 2010, we standardized the game across the country and in the United States."

Currently, blind hockey is played with a puck made of steel and filled with ball bearings so that it can be heard as it travels across the ice.

But playability is an issue with a metal puck, as is the fact that it becomes silent once it stops moving. 

"It also doesn't make much noise when it's in the air," Beauregard said.  "So the goalies, who are totally blind, have a hard time picking up the puck when it's shot up in the air."

The new electronic puck emits sound constantly while it's in play. 

Beauregard and his team played several games with the prototype as it was being developed. 

"Compared to a steel puck, it changes the dynamic of the game because players with lesser vision will track that electronic puck with more ease," he said. "So there's a better flow to the game."

Engineering challenges

There were, however, some challenges that came up over the course of developing the new puck, he said.

First, researchers had to design the right type of shell that would be sturdy enough to survive a game of hockey. 

"Electronics don't like cold weather, humidity or shocks. How do you protect the electronic core and the power supply in part of a hockey game?" he said.

Next, they had to find the right sound for the job.

"It has to be the right pitch, the right volume and the right speed of the beeping," he said.

Of course, no two hockey arenas have the same acoustics. So the audio portion of the puck's design is adjustable through a smartphone app.

The research team sent a few prototypes out to hockey teams outside of Montreal to gather feedback, which was incorporated into the new "2.0 prototype," Beauregard said.

"Very soon we will be able to ship pucks around the country to our fellow blind hockey players and ask them for feedback," he said.

"Why don't you play a couple of games to let us know the pros, the cons, and then we can eventually develop the definitive product, which would be an improvement on the current metal puck."

Written by Alison Broverman with files from the Canadian PressInterview produced by Allie Jaynes.

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