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GPS Project to Help Blind and Visually Impaired Navigate Campus

student walks along a campus road

Getting Around Campus when you Cannot See the Signs: The Assistive Technology Studies and Human Services program (ATHS) received funding from an Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation Grant.

A walk through the CSUN campus is a pleasure on almost any day. It’s a vibrant, active community, even on the weekends. As you become familiar with the campus you learn your way around, from the shortcuts to the scenic routes, and if you get lost there’s usually someone you can ask for help. But for people who can’t see, navigation in any new place has always included a lot of guesswork and trial and error. At CSUN, it’s about to get a lot easier, thanks to an ambitious graduate project recently funded by a $20,000 grant from the Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation (ELA).

Using a Global Positioning Device (GPS) students who are partially sighted or blind will soon be able to navigate the CSUN campus and get orientation at every turn, and even receive information about what’s inside the buildings they’re passing.

student walks along a campus road

Jennifer Kalfsbeek-Goetz is the instructor for the Research Methods and Design course in ATHS graduate program. Robert Sweetman and Trudy Bowden-Callahan are graduate students in the program who, as a research and design project, developed a way to utilize GPS for campus navigation. “Robert and Trudy’s project was so compelling that when one of our faculty, Vicky Jaque [Kinesiology] told us about this funding opportunity, I encouraged them to develop a grant proposal from their research paper,” Kalfsbeek-Goetz said.

Both students have a strong background for work on the project. Trudy has extensive experience assisting people with intellectual and physical disabilities, as well as traumatic brain injury. She has worked in various agencies with people with intellectual and physical disabilities or traumatic brain injury. Sweetman’s career history includes working as an attorney, so he wasn’t timid about writing a grant. “Neither of us had ever done a grant before,” Sweetman said, “But the chance to develop the project made both of us eager to learn quickly.”

As he discovered the value of assistive technology in his own life, Sweetman began working with *GPS when it was new. Being blind, he quickly realized the possibilities for using technology to help others. “In the 70’s I developed an interest in assistive technology while working part-time at Stanford Research Institute and also at Telesensory Systems, manufacturers of the Optacon, which created vibrations in the shape of printed characters as the user moved a camera across the printed page.” Sweetman graduated from UC Davis Law School, passed the California State Bar in 1981, and was an early user of computers that produced speech or Braille output.

“As an estate tax attorney with the IRS, I used OCR technology to read printed documents.” Sweetman said. And in the late 1980’s he and his wife started a business which thrives today, connecting people who are blind or visually impaired with the kind of assistive technology that can help in both educational and work settings.

fingers read a sign written in braille

“In early 2002, while doing early GPS testing with the BrailleNote, I was asked the question, ‘Why would a blind man carry a GPS device?’ It comes down to a phrase later coined by Mike May of Sendero Group, ‘location literacy,’ That is, knowing where you are and what is around you, along with your heading and destination.” Sweetman explained.

“For many years after I moved to Los Angeles in 1984, I had very little knowledge of street names, the types of businesses on those streets, or whether particular streets ran east or west, north or south.” Sweetman said. “Travelling with GPS, in essence I can watch what I am passing, and now I have a good understanding of where things are, even when I don’t have my GPS with me.”

And so when faced with a new campus, Sweetman saw a new opportunity. “Location literacy is just as important when you’re on the campus.” He makes the distinction that GPS technology is an orientation aid as opposed to a mobility aid. “Generally, orientation refers to the process of keeping track of one's position and heading when traveling from point A to point B. Mobility refers to the process of detecting and avoiding obstacles or drop-offs in the path.”

As a first step to implementation, Sweetman and Bowden-Callahan’s project will explore and describe the ways in which GPS technology can help users get where they want to go, and know where they are on campus. Combined with narrative descriptions, a device equipped with GPS will inform students about important features of each point of interest and provide orientation in real-time. And what’s especially compelling about the device is that it can be used one-handed, so he can check his location while walking with his guide-dog, AJ.

Bowden-Callahan explained that it’s tempting to try to solve every problem at once. “We learned from Dr. Kalfsbeek-Goetz’s research class that you need to have a starting point. So, Robert and I will start with our exploratory research to first see if there is enough interest in the project and then we’ll get feedback and ideas for improvements. As our teacher, Jennifer supported our ideas and encouraged us to understand concepts and key elements in our research.”

fingers push buttons on gps device

Both Sweetman and Bowden-Callahan envision opportunities for the future that would include the ability for users to access the information on different platforms. But for now, basic development using the BrailleNote manufactured by Humanware, and the BrailleSense manufactured by Hims, Inc. is the next step. Trudy noted that “Jennifer [Kalfsbeek-Goetz] provides good feedback as well as guidance in organizing our timelines. With her great knowledge base for research combined with her great sense of humor we all will work great together!”

Using technology which has already been developed, the research team will “geocode” points of interest on campus. Student researchers will then attach descriptive information in audio form to those points in order to explain the details of, say, the bookstore complex. “For example,” Sweetman said, “You would hear, ‘as you approach the entrance to the bookstore complex, the Tseng College is on your left. Automatic doors are directly ahead of you. As you enter through these doors, the bookstore will be slightly to your left,’ this way the user doesn’t have to go into the building to know what’s there.”

Test subjects will try out the devices, following various routes and trying different navigation methods. Researchers will follow and observe, take notes, and fine tune the narratives.

arial view of csun campus

The team has already marked 55 points on campus where signs are needed, and the next step is to mark all major buildings on campus to pinpoint their locations so that when users pass by, the narrative can be triggered. The device will also allow users to select a building from a distance and get a clear indication of its heading and distance.

“We would like to continue to contribute to future Assistive Technology on campus,” said Bowden-Callahan, “Such as indoor navigation for the blind, talking map kiosk system, assessable vending machines and more accessible library features.”

Sweetman and Bowden-Callahan are nearly finished with their academic program which ends in December 2011, (they will be graduates of the first cohort of the program, by the way). “I am excited about this project,” Sweetman said, “It’s a natural extension of the path I had been following, using technology in my own work. I realized early on that if you don’t do something there’s a good chance it won’t happen. I want this to happen.”

The Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation Endowment selected one CSUN project to receive this grant. The Foundation supports the development of assistive technology solutions and seeks projects that lead to the development of low-cost, user friendly assistive technology that can be used by students of all ages. Projects may focus on the development of new assistive technology solutions or improvements in existing assistive technology solutions.

-Jean O’Sullivan