2003 Conference Proceedings

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Michael May
Pulse Data and Sendero Group
175 Mason Circle
Concord, CA 94520
Phone: (800) 722-3393
Email: mailto:MikeM@PulseData.com

As laptops become sub-notebooks and sub-notebooks become PDAs, and with the vast improvements in voice input and output, revolutionary navigation devices for blind and other disabled individuals no longer need to be bulky high-priced units. Accessible mainstream navigation technology combined with state-of-the-art portable technology for people who are blind represents the potential for a quantum leap in independence and social integration.

What are the emerging orientation tools addressing location literacy?

The talking digital map, Atlas, provides blind people independent and equal access to maps. For the first time, blind people have as good or better-detailed street maps as sighted readers have on printed maps. It is possible to figure out a route and become familiar with the lengths of blocks and directions in the comfort and safety of one's home or office. This is much easier than trying to figure out directions while also using a cane or dog on the street. Sendero's Atlas provides access to millions of streets and addresses through the use of a talking street-map browser with a digital database. Orientation is an important task for blind people, and Atlas provides access to a very important part of orientation, information.

Now that we have a talking map, how about an accessible location and navigation system?

The Sendero Group along with Pulse Data added accessible GPS to the VoiceNote and BrailleNote to provide fully accessible location information and navigation. Strider was one of the first iterations of accessible GPS, which was under development at Arkenstone from 1994 to 1999. The Sendero Group licensed this technology from Arkenstone in late 1999 and released their first laptop product in March 2000. In April of 2002, Pulse Data's Version 1 of the BrailleNote GPS began the first truly portable heading and distance access to 700,000 Points of Interest in the U.S. The BrailleNote GPS Version 2 will offer the talking map functionality of Atlas as well.

What GPS products may be applicable for use by people who cannot see or read signs?

The good news is that the GPS continues to get cheaper and smaller and the hardware components are becoming more integrated. However, screen information is not accessible on commercial GPS units, talking car units do not describe intersections and voice input systems are slow in responding and undependable in many environments.

Are GPS systems for the blind catching on?

Arkenstone never finished Strider and so put it on hold in 1997 largely because the GPS hardware design was weak and expensive. The GPS industry itself was still immature. Commercial products were too large and costly. The lack of integrated components made the systems bulky and cumbersome. Now that the technology is portable, we still face a lack of awareness and understanding of the value of location information. If you have never had something, how can you appreciate its value?

What are some of the hurdles and the benefits of this technology?

Atlas has been on the market for 7 years and we have demonstrated it to hundreds of blind and sighted users. Everyone is very impressed when his or her own address appears and is spoken out loud. As they have explored using Atlas, users have discovered cross streets they never knew existed even in they're own neighborhoods. Most blind users, who purchased Atlas, have become avid proponents of location information.

Massive map databases offer a tremendous amount of detailed information which could be challenging for a blind user who has traditionally only had limited street map information. When an intersection is described in terms of the compass, clock face or right-left-front-back, the user may not initially have the mental imaging skills to understand the intersection description. It takes practice hearing these descriptions before the user can automatically picture the information.

It is important that users have mental imaging skills when they use GPS. We want the navigation information to augment orientation without interfering with mobility. BrailleNote GPS can be completely quiet other than announcing when it is time to turn or when the user asks for information like, "which way is my destination?"

At first thought, you might think GPS is only appropriate for accomplished travelers. In fact, good travelers can become great travelers with the help of location information. Poor travelers may lack natural orientation skills and need the assistive GPS technology even more than the good traveler.

Another aspect of GPS navigation for the blind, which has been under-played, is the use in vehicles. We live in an age of motor vehicles and although blind people may walk more than the average person, more than half their travel time is probably spent in a vehicle. When a blind person is in a vehicle, there is little to no contact with the signs and landmarks one is passing. We ride in a vehicular cocoon, deprived of information even more than when walking. There are no mobility safety issues either when listening to audible information in a car versus on foot. The blind user can be a navigator, a blind back-seat driver so to speak.

Also, GPS works better in a car than when on foot because the vehicle is in better view of the satellites in the street than a pedestrian is on the sidewalk, possibly blocked by buildings. It works well in a bus or train traveling in the relative open. For the first time in vehicles, a blind person has the choice of as much or as little information about their surroundings as they want with the BrailleNote GPS.

What are some future navigation developments?

In the fall of 2001, Sendero Group was awarded a $2.25 mm grant by the Department of Educations NIDRR division for R&D of wayfinding technology. Sendero is collaborating with the top wayfinding experts in the field from Western Michigan University, University of Minnesota, UC Santa Barbara, Carnegie-Melon University and the Smith Kettlewell Institute. The plan is to create a platform, such as the BrailleNote GPS, into which various sensors can be connected such as Talking Signs, cell phones or any other device that can enhance location information and navigation.

One of the greatest weaknesses for GPS based navigation systems has been inside buildings and subways. We are working with a Swiss company to integrate a Dead Reckoning Module with GPS to enhance navigation in urban canyons and indoors. This may work together nicely with Talking Signs or other location-specific identifiers. Another technology called Snap Track allows weak GPS signals to be received inside buildings. The fact that mobile telephones must have an accurate "E911" location ability gives the incentive for commercial manufacturers to come up with good all-around location technology and this is beginning to happen.

The telephone and PDA manufacturers are working on integrated GPS mobile phones and some are already on the market. Soon we will be able to press "511" and ask an operator or automated attendant directions to the nearest pub.

Now that we are crossing the barriers of size, cost and technology, the greatest obstacle to accessible location information remains, funding. Government organizations will pay for a VoiceNote or BrailleNote because of its multiple applications specifically tailored for blind users, Word Processing, Email, browsing the Internet and GPS. The incremental cost of the BrailleNote GPS is small compared to purchasing a relatively expensive dedicated GPS with its own computer or PDA. The integration factor and the justification for government funding are key to breaking down this remaining barrier to accessible location information.

It is fair to say that the current GPS technology offers users many benefits bearing in mind that there are also limitations, issues like accuracy and seamless availability, which we are addressing with the Wayfinding grant. It is best to start integrating location information into our lives rather than waiting for perfect worldwide centimeter accuracy. A friend recently asked, "when the boat was first introduced, what if people had said, but it doesn't travel on land?" What is now available on the BrailleNote GPS is very beneficial. Those who wait for the perfect solution and don't start learning how to utilize location information now to further their orientation and understanding of the environment will be missing the boat.

In conclusion, I pose a question rather than a summary: Now that we can label and identify stationary objects, what about labeling moving objects like people? I really want to be aware when people I know are nearby. Sighted people have a huge advantage socially and professionally knowing who is around. It will be incredibly empowering for blind people to have this same access to people identification. This is technically feasible and is the next important frontier in location information access.

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