Friday, October 31, 2008

Michigan technology project guides blind pedestrians

From a University of Michigan press release:

Imagine yourself walking through the streets of a strange city. You have places to go but, as with every journey, the destination is merely the end result. You pass many points of interest along the way, but they are easy to miss, without some form of communication describing to you the virtues of the unique and individual points that might otherwise be overlooked.

Now imagine walking those same streets, in that same strange city, only this time imagine doing it while blind.

A team of students at the University of Michigan has not only imagined that scenario, they’ve done even more. They’ve devised a way to make those streets a little less foreign, so a pedestrian can know what points of interest are in store as he or she, blind or sighted, walks along streets that are both familiar and unfamiliar.

Years ago, the university’s James Knox, now an adaptive technology coordinator for the school’s Information Technology Central Services, led a team of colleagues in developing a system they called Talking Points, which used radio-frequency identification (RFID), transmitted between a hand-held receiver and an information transmitter. Their idea was that a visually-impaired person could carry the receiver as he or she walked through a city, picking up information along the way that would identify important points around them, such as the nearest tourist attraction or historical monument or, perhaps more important, the location of the nearest police station, bus stop, or public restroom.

Today’s technology and the original Talking Points system inspired a group of graduate and undergraduate students at the university to update and expand the capabilities of Knox’s original system, with Bluetooth technology replacing the prototype’s RFID technology.

Bluetooth allows for wireless transmission of data from points both fixed and mobile, enabling a vast array of information to be delivered, even while the user is in transit.

The Talking Points system has some competition but it is the only one that was developed with both sighted and visually-impaired users in mind and it’s the only one that is voice activated. It also allows information to be added or updated on a website, making it possible to keep all information as current as possible. Knox describes the updated system as the first step toward an audio virtual reality.

The research team envisions a time when shop owners, restaurateurs, and entertainment venues enter their latest sales, daily menus, and hottest shows so that it is transmitted via a beacon at their places of business.

Municipalities could also keep pedestrians posted by placing beacons around a city that guide pedestrians to points of interest, parks, and any other public facilities.

The research team says beacons can be purchased for less than $20. Access to the system’s website would allow for quick and easy updates, reviews, and comments from other users, all of which can be transmitted to the pedestrian’s mobile receiver, as desired.

As the pedestrian, outfitted with the mobile receiving device now smaller than the original, about the size of a paperback book, approaches a beacon, general information is transmitted. If more information is desired, the pedestrian can access it using either voice or touch commands.

The student research team was awarded a $10,000 grant from Grant Opportunities [Collaborative Spaces] (GROCS) to develop their Bluetooth-based Talking Points system. The GROCS program funds student research of digital media in collaborative learning projects.