BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY
 The present invention relates generally to walking aids and, more particularly, to walking aids including controllable electrical features.
 It is known to provide items such as lights on walking aids such as canes, safety canes, and walkers to assist users in finding their way around in the dark. Typical walking aids reflect a general lack of consideration to various design features of walking aids, such as how lights should be focused to for practical use, or where controls for electrical equipment on walking aids should be located on the walking aid. It is desirable to provide a walking aid that is designed in view of the actual uses and purposes for the walking aid.
 The typical walking aid, largely made of aluminum tubing, has a rather generic appearance. It is desirable to provide a walking aid that can be personalized.
 In accordance with an aspect of the present invention, a walking aid comprises a vertical shaft, a housing member disposed at a bottom of the shaft, a plurality of vertical leg members extending downwardly relative to the housing member, an electrical component on the walking aid, and control circuitry for the electrical component disposed on the housing member.
 In accordance with another aspect of the present invention, a walking aid comprises a vertical shaft, a handle disposed at a top end of the shaft, an electrical component on the walking aid, and at least one switch for operating the electrical component, the at least one switch being disposed sufficiently proximate the handle so that a user can operate the at least one switch while the user's hand remains on the handle.
 In accordance with another aspect of the present invention, a walking aid comprises a vertical shaft, a handle disposed at a top end of the shaft, and a health monitor including a sensor disposed inside the handle.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
 The features and advantages of the present invention are well understood by reading the following detailed description in conjunction with the drawings in which like numerals indicate similar elements and in which:
 FIGS. 1A and 1B are front and rear perspective views of a walking aid according to an embodiment of the present invention;
 FIGS. 2A and 2B are top and bottom perspective view of a base portion of a walking aid according to an embodiment of the present invention; and
 FIGS. 3A and 3B are partially broken perspective views of a handle portion of a walking aid according to an embodiment of the present invention.
 A walking aid 21 according to an embodiment of the present invention is shown in FIGS. 1A and 1B. The walking aid 21 includes a vertical shaft 23, a base, i.e., a generally horizontal base housing case member 25 disposed at a bottom 27 of the shaft, and a plurality of vertical leg members 29 extending downwardly relative to the horizontal member. As seen in greater detail in FIGS. 2A and 2B, the base housing case member 25 can be in the form of an extra strong and durable injection-molded housing that allows integration of mechanical support, positioning and securing of components, and protection from the elements for equipment such as electrical equipment. Its position at the base distributes the weight at a low center of gravity to enhance the stability of the cane which resists tipping over.
 The legs 29 can be in any suitable form, and may include or be in the form of rubberized solid core feet 30 or caps to enhance friction between the floor and the floor-contacting portions of the walking aid 21. The legs 29 and feet 30 may be detachable from the remainder of the walking aid 21. The feet 30 can be replaceable, non-slip, solid core, balanced, elliptical grips which provide positive traction. The feet 30 can be constructed with a centered threaded bolt (not shown) so the user can unscrew the feet from a threaded female portion (not shown) of the base housing case member 25. The walking aid 21 illustrated is in the form of a safety cane, however, it will be appreciated that the present invention has application in connections with other types of walking aids, such as walkers, and forms of canes other than safety canes. For example, components that are mounted to the base housing case member 25 in the embodiment shown in FIGS. 1A and 1B can be mounted elsewhere, such as along the shaft of a regular cane.
 The shaft 23 can be made of carbon composite resin. This affords both strength and lightness of weight. The shaft 23 will ordinarily be hollow to allow flexible circuit wiring harnesses to be contained within, thus affording a more cosmetic appearance as well as easy addition of custom decorative applications. The shaft 23 can be made of a non-conductive material to minimize the possibility of shorting out the wires to the shaft.
 A latched pivot arrangement (not shown) can be provided to connect the shaft 23 to the base housing case member 35 to allow the shaft to be swiveled and locked relative to the base housing case member in one of multiple positions, such as two positions 180° from side to side. This positioning allows the shorter side legs of the cane and the narrow section of the base plate to be positioned closest to the user's legs depending on whether the user is right-handed or left-handed. A flexible circuit wiring harness inside the shaft 23 is able to swivel without excessive mechanical stress.
 The walking aid 21 also includes an electrical component. Control circuitry 33 (shown in phantom) for the electrical component is disposed inside the horizontal base housing case member 25. The horizontal base housing case member 25 can provide a platform, a cover, and a protective shield for the control circuitry 33. The control circuitry 33 can include a microprocessor such as a PIC microcontroller that stores an onboard program in non-volatile memory, and executes code on power-up. It can be responsible for processing digital inputs and outputs, and digitizing analog signals (such as signals from a sensor 41 such as a heartbeat/oximetry sensor), and detecting a charge level of a battery 67 (FIG. 2B). Digital inputs can include lights, alarms, set, up, down, and cancel buttons. The control circuitry 33 can also get input from a real-time clock. Digital outputs can include transistor array driven signals for alarms, lights, an LCD backlight for, e.g., a display, and charge outputs. The control circuitry 33 can also supply signals to the real-time clock and LED charge indicator. The control circuitry can be continuously under power, thus facilitating, e.g., daily reminder alarms.
 The electrical component can be of any desired type. It is presently contemplated that the electrical component will include one or more components such as, but not limited to, a light 35, an alarm 37, a reminder alarm 38, a monitor 39, such as a health monitor such as a heartbeat and oximetry monitor, a sensor 41, such as a health condition sensor or a level sensor, a communication device 50 (such as, to list only several of the possible devices: a speaker or audio transducer; a microphone; a coded computer chip programmed to phone emergency numbers; global positioning satellite sensors to permit location of the walking aid; and the like) and a display 45, such as a digital and/or video display. The alarm 37 may be used to warn of a dangerous condition, such as that the walking aid 21 has been in a tipped condition for an excessive period of time, while the reminder alarm 38 may be used to advise the user that it is a particular time of day, such as a time to take medications. Of course, the alarms 37 and 38 can be used for any desired function. The alarms 37 and 38 will ordinarily make different sounds. The alarm 37, for example, might emit a loud wail, while the alarm 38 might emit a softer chirping sound.
 The alarms 37 and 38 may be a single device or two separate devices. An embodiment of the alarms 37 and 38 in the form of a single device includes a piezo-electric speaker with integrated resonant cavity mounted on the top of or in a cutaway or recess inside of the base housing case member 25 to project the sound. It can be operated at resonant frequency for an emergency alarm, e.g., the alarm 37, outputting greater than 50 dB of sound. The PIC microcontroller can hit this resonant frequency by sweeping the generated frequency from below to above the resonant frequency without the need for exact matching of the components with an electronic signal. It can be operated off resonant frequency for a quieter sound (short burst chirp) for a reminder alarm, e.g., the alarm 38.
 The monitor can be adapted to monitor a characteristic of a user's health, such as, but not limited to, heart rate, temperature, respiration, blood sugar, oxygenation, and blood pressure. The monitor typically comprises several components, including circuitry that may be part of the control circuitry 33, a sensor 41, and some form of signaling arrangement, such as an alarm and/or a display 45, and wiring (not shown) connecting the sensor, the circuitry, and the display.
 The walking aid 21 typically comprises a handle 47 disposed at a top end 49 of the shaft 23. The handle 47 is attached to the top end 49 of the shaft 23 by any suitable means, such as by providing the handle in the form of a sleeve that tightly fits over the shaft at the top end.
 The monitor can be disposed in any suitable location on the walking aid 21, however, it will often be desirable to locate a sensing portion 41 of the monitor proximate an end 51 of the handle 47. The handle 47 can be in the form of a replaceable non-slip grip that provides positive traction. It can also have absorptive qualities, which can be useful to cushion the grip for those with arthritic or physically painful conditions affecting gripping. The center of the grip handle 47 and the top end 49 of the shaft 23 can be hollow to allow the user to insert a finger (F FIG. 3B) into the sensing portion 41 of the monitor, such as a heartbeat/oximetry sensor comprising upper and lower PCB boards 41a and 41b, enclosed within. Placement of the sensing portion 41 of the monitor at the top of the cane allows easy access from a sitting or standing position. Placing the sensor inside the tube also allows for light shielding from optical interference for heartbeat and oximetry measurements. A heartbeat/oximetry sensor, for example, can be in the form of a proportional voltage detector 41d of two implemented frequencies of light as seen in FIGS. 3A and 3B. Light beams L1 and L2 (FIG. 3A) can emanate from visible red and infrared LEDs 39l1 and 39l2 (FIG. 3A) mounted in connection with the sensing portion 41 of the monitor with the finger interposed between the LEDs and the detector 41d (FIG. 3B). A contoured finger stop 42 can be provided inside of the handle 47 and may also form part of the sensor 41. The finger stop 42 can be shaped to permit a finger with a long fingernail to be fully inserted into the sensor 41 by permitting the fingernail to pass over a top of the stop. The finger stop 42 can be positioned to properly position a finger relative to components of the sensor 41.
 Ordinarily, a plurality of electrical components are provided, including lights 35 (FIG. 1A), an alarm 37 and/or a reminder alarm 38 (FIG. 2A), and a health monitor. Some or, more typically, all of the electrical components can be controlled by the user without necessitating removal of the user's hand from the handle 47 of the walking aid. For example, switches 53 and 55 to operate the lights 35 and the alarm 37 can be provided on the top end 49 of the shaft 23 in any suitable location, such as on top of and on the bottom of the top end of the shaft, forward of the handle 47. A sensing portion 41 of a monitor in the form of a heart rate/oximetry monitor can be provided in a manner such that, the user can insert his fingertip into a recess 61 on the end 51 and inside of the handle. The sensing portion 41 of the monitor can be connected by conventional electrical connections (not shown) to other equipment comprising the monitor that may be disposed elsewhere, such as on the horizontal portion 25 and equipment including, for example, a display 45 and/or an alarm 37 for advising the user of, e.g., the user's heart rate or pulse and oximetry, or for warning of health conditions in a potentially dangerous range.
 Various other forms of sensors 41 can be provided, as well, such as a level sensor 63 (shown in phantom in FIG. 2A) adapted to sense when the shaft 23 misaligned from a vertical orientation. The level sensor 63 can be in any suitable form, such as a mercury switch that is open when the shaft 23 is upright and closed when the shaft is not upright, and can be associated with a timer 65 (shown in phantom in FIG. 2A) and an alarm 37 that broadcasts an alarm message when the shaft is misaligned from the vertical orientation beyond a predetermined period of time. The alarm 37 can be, but need not be, the same alarm that can be manually activated by the switch 55 or a separate alarm. An alarm signal can be emitted by the communication equipment or by separate equipment. The level sensor 63, timer 65, and alarm 37 arrangement can assist care providers in determining whether a user has fallen. Alarms 37 can be audible or can transmit electrical signals that are detected by appropriately tuned receivers that can be monitored from a distance.
 The display 45 can be an LCD display having a low power, high contrast, trans-reflective alphanumeric display that is visible in bright sunlight (or at night by activating a backlight) and can be activated by a main power switch. An alphanumeric display can show the date and time, menu options, readings from sensors 41 such as heartbeat and oximetry readings, and can assist in setting the date and time as well as daily reminder alarm (chirp bursts) functions. The illustrated display 45 in FIG. 2A includes a display panel having a two position platform that can be angled for convenient user viewing or can be flat for viewing purposes or when not in use. The two position display panel can be adjusted by any suitable arrangement, such as a "spring type" pressure sensitive operating mechanism. The power switch 66 (shown in phantom) can be in any suitable form, such as in the form of a substantially large and raised rubberized momentary button with positive feel and click touch such that a press of the finger or a foot controls it. One or more power switches 66 can be provided, such as by providing a switch on one or both of the handle 47 and the base housing case member 25. It can be used to activate all user controlled functions including the lighting functions, the date and time displays, and sensors. A signal (not shown) such as a green LED can turn on when the power switch 66 is turned on, signifying that the main power from the battery 67 is active.
 Ordinarily, the control circuitry 33 includes a battery 67 as seen in FIG. 2B. The inventor has recognized that the horizontal base housing case member 25 or platform typically provided with safety canes is a desirable spot for components such as batteries 67 and other portions of the control circuitry 33. Nickel metal hydride batteries are presently considered to be particularly useful because they are high capacity and lightweight. The reduced weight of this battery selection affords less physical fatigue to the user. Other forms of batteries, such as rechargeable coil cell type lithium batteries, can also be used.
 Charging electronics 100 can be provided for charging the batteries 67. The charging electronics 100 may be in any suitable form, such as in the form of a 2.5 mm female barreljack 102 externally on the bottom of the cane and inexpensive 6 volt DC unregulated power supply with 2.5 mm male barreljack. A signal can be provided, such as a red LED that is not lit when the charging power is not connected. The control circuity 33 may include a PIC microcontroller that monitors the charging state of the batteries 67 during charging, and can provide a signal during the charging interval, such as by blinking the red LED. The PIC can light the LED with a steady light when the charging is completed. The PIC can draw its power from the charging power supply or the main power supply. The PIC and special drive circuitry can shape the charging level by pulsewidth modulation, as is necessary for safely charging the nickel metal hydride batteries. The PIC measures the state of the charge and adjusts the charging rate accordingly.
 A real-time clock (not shown) can be provided and may include a single Dallas semiconductor chip controlled by the control circuitry 33. The real-time clock can store new input time values, update them in real-time, and supply the time values under the command of the microprocessor. The real-time clock can draw power from the battery 67 when the power switch is turned on. When the power switch is turned off, power can be drawn from an on-board lithium backup battery. The current draw of the real-time clock can be measured in nano-amps which allows the clock to run continuously for a long time.
 The electrical component of the walking aid 21 ordinarily includes a plurality of lights 35. The lights 35 can be of any suitable type, although LED lights are presently believed to be particularly useful in connection with the walking aid 21. Ordinarily, at least one light 69 is mounted somewhere near a user's waist level for illuminating an area approximately 1-4 meters ahead of the walking aid, and at least one light 71 is mounted somewhere near the horizontal platform 25 for illuminating an area directly in front of the walking aid at or near floor level. Typically, the lights 69 and 71 will comprise a bank of LEDS, such as ten LEDs at the top and ten LEDs at the base. While controls such as switches 53 and 55 and certain sensors such as a heart rate, pulse sensor, or oximetry sensor are ordinarily best disposed on the handle 47, electrical components such as certain lights 35, an alarm 37, portions of the health monitor, a communication device 50 such as a speaker 43 (FIG. 2A), a display 45, and other larger components are ordinarily most easily mounted on the horizontal base housing case member 25, although they can be attached to or disposed inside of other portions of the walking aid, such as in or on the shaft 23 or at an end of the horizontal base housing case member 25.
 The light switch 53 can be a raised rubberized momentary button with positive feel and click touch. It can be placed on the upper top side 49 of the shaft 23 and can be operated by a user's thumb. This placement allows quick and easy access for lighting while in use without having to release grip to operate the switch. Both upper and lower situated LED lights 69 and 71 can operate in tandem with the single switch mechanism, such as by clicking on the switch 53 a number of times to operate one or both lights.
 The alarm switch 55 can be a raised rubberized momentary button with positive feel and click touch. It can be placed on the lower top side 49 of the shaft and can be operated by the index finger and can be engaged while the cane is in use and without the user having to release the handle 49. The alarm switch 55 placement allows a more restricted access to the emergency alarm function. For example, the alarm 37 may be programmed so that the switch 55 must be pressed twice in succession to activate the alarm avoiding spurious triggering by accidental pressing of the button.
 The walking aid 21 can include an optional sleeve 73 attachable around the part of the walking aid, such as the shaft 23. The sleeve 73 can provide the shaft 23 with a different appearance, such as a different color, design, pattern, etc. A variety of sleeve 73 designs and colors can be provided. The sleeve 73 can be a different color than the shaft 23 and can permit customization of the walking aid in accordance with a user's aesthetic preferences. The shaft 23 itself, may, of course, be made in any desired color or colors. The sleeve 73 can also include information, such as the name of the owner and any known medical conditions. The sleeve 73 can be simply manufactured in the form of, for example, a plastic or metal sheet, tube, or web that is shaped to define a substantial circle with a longitudinal slot 73s to facilitate attaching the sleeve over the shaft 23. If the portion of the walking aid around which the sleeve is attached is bent, the sleeve can be constructed in a bent form or can be made in several separate parts that are each attachable around portions of the walking aid or as a singular tube to fit over the existing shaft. The sleeve 73 can, itself, be colored, patterned or otherwise designed, or include printed information, or it can include an outer, clear protective plastic portion and an inner portion made of paper or other suitable material that can be printed in a desired color and/or have printed information provided thereon.
 In addition to or instead of the components noted elsewhere, the handle 47 of the walking aid 21 can include an optional and attachable storage compartment 77 for storing small items such as keys, money, identification, etc. While the storage compartment 77 can have any suitable structure, it is presently contemplated that the compartment will extend along part of a length of the shaft 23 or proximate the handle 47.
 As with many walking aids, the walking aid 21 can be adjustable in height. For example, the shaft 23 can be formed of telescoping tubular members 23a and 23b, one of which is adapted to slide inside of the other. The telescoping tubular members 23a and 23b can be locked so that the walking aid 21 is at a desired height by any suitable arrangement, such as by a set-screw type of lock 81. The lock 81 can have an externally threaded male portion that extends through an opening and/or an internally threaded nut or lock ring on an outer one of the tubular members 23b, extends through a wall of the tubular member 23b and contacts the inner tubular member 23a or mates with a desired one of a plurality of holes or detents in the inner tubular member 23a to lock it relative to the outer tubular member 23b. The sleeve 73 can include a slot or opening 73o to permit a lock 81 to pass through the sleeve. To facilitate extension and contraction of the shaft 23, wiring (not shown) is ordinarily coiled in the shaft between, for example, buttons and switches on the handle 47 and alarms, monitors, and lights elsewhere on the walking aid 21.
 In the present application, the use of terms such as "including" is open-ended and is intended to have the same meaning as terms such as "comprising" and not preclude the presence of other structure, material, or acts. Similarly, though the use of terms such as "can" or "may" is intended to be open-ended and to reflect that structure, material, or acts are not necessary, the failure to use such terms is not intended to reflect that structure, material, or acts are essential. To the extent that structure, material, or acts are presently considered to be essential, they are identified as such.
 While this invention has been illustrated and described in accordance with a preferred embodiment, it is recognized that variations and changes may be made therein without departing from the invention as set forth in the claims.