There are a whole range of software packages emerging for smartphones which aim to help visually impaired people navigate. Blindsquare is the most widely used navigation app, which draws on listings data from the social network FourSquare, guidance from Global Position System (GPS) satellites, and navigation through Google Maps to direct users from point to point in the city using turn by turn navigation. A number of other companies have developed software in this area which operates similar to the turn by turn driving directions that GPS offers car users.
Dr Oliver Zanetti recorded at The Open University for BBC Radio 4's sociological discussion programme, Thinking Allowed.
Bluetooth, the technology behind wireless speakers and headphones, has a role to play in navigation for the visually impaired too. Because GPS signals come from satellites, it only works well in open spaces where there is a clear line of sight to the sky. The webs of concrete and steel that make up complex buildings like offices, blocks of flats, hospitals and shopping centres interrupt those signals. An alternative approach being experimented with is the placing of a network of Bluetooth beacons in such buildings. These can interact with smartphone apps to tell the user their current location (outside a particular shop in a shopping centre, for instance), or can be used for navigation around those spaces. It has been trialled on the London Underground.
Navigation through space is not just about knowing which roads to take, obstacles like street furniture, badly parked cars and overhanging plants are also hazardous. Research is underway which combine sensors with wearable devices which provide feedback to their users through vibration. This haptic feedback, or feedback which the user receives through touch, can be delivered by glasses, wrist bands, necklaces or footwear, or can be more detailed in the case of pads worn across the abdomen, back or even the tongue. Through vibrations felt on the visually impaired person’s body, they can identify the size of an object in their path and how close they are to it, so work out how to avoid it.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
Virtual Reality (VR) is not just about immersive video games, it is increasingly used in the planning of cities and buildings, and even products like cars. But being based on creating worlds using high-quality visual materials, VR has been of little use to the visually impaired. Two new technologies are changing that. First is Microsoft’s virtual reality white cane. This allows visually impaired people to navigate a VR environment using a white cane which simulates the effect of the cane interacting with objects in the virtual world. The second is the Transport Systems Catapult’s visual impairment simulator, which uses Augmented Reality to allow city designers and the public at large to see the world through the eyes of people with a range of visual impairments.
Even Robot Guide Dogs…?
Might the guide dog itself have been rendered obsolete? Robotics engineers have been working on technologies to help guide humans in a range of scenarios, for instance, fire crews working in smoke-filled environments where visibility is next to zero. Perhaps this technology could replace the guide dog, with a robotic Fido to help visually impaired people get around urban spaces. The RNIB though is not convinced, “There’s no denying that robots are pretty cool, but they are far less cute when you rub their tummies!”.