Have Cell Phone, Will Travel

In Stockholm, wireless technology helps blind people navigate independently.

Although Swedens reputation for extremely generous social welfare services is somewhat exaggerated, the country is at the forefront of using IT and telecommunications to help the elderly and disabled remain as autonomous as possible. This allows those in need to maintain their dignity and reduces expenditures for publicly financed social workers and personal assistants.

One of the most challenging projects has been an effort to develop a system for guiding the sight-impaired and blind with voice advisories from their mobile phones. The navigation system is the first high-tech, software-related project to be undertaken as part of the city of Stockholms Project of Easy Access for the visually impaired, which has hitherto been a program of rebuilding sidewalk curbs, building wheelchair ramps and making other adjustments to Stockholms physical infrastructure.

Swedish firm Mobile Sorcery AB is developing the software for the prototype system, which uses a Nokia 6300 Symbian phone with earphones and a separate GPS unit linked to the phone through Bluetooth SIG technology. The application linking a geographic information system (GIS) to the guidance system is provided by Astando AB, another Swedish company.

We designed all the client software which resides on the phone, plus there is a standard voice synthesis solution from Acapela Group, says Tomas Upp­gård, CEO of Mobile Sorcery. The complete system was tested by about a dozen sight-impaired and blind people in Swedens capital in late 2006. The navigation application from Astando locates the user and plots a path to the destination using a highly detailed GIS created and maintained by the city mainly for street maintenance and traffic management purposes.

The voice guide then alerts the user to upcoming turns and obstacles through early warnings, rather than instructing every move. The voice alerts (in Swedish) include phrases like left turn in 10 meters or low wall on the right.

The metaphor is to give them a spoken map and enough detail to make their own decisions, says Uppgård. Users will also be able to enter their own data, such as noting that a parked vehicle is blocking a crosswalk, and other users will be alerted to it via an update of the GIS data­base. (Most blind people can find their own way around an unexpected but familiar object such as a parked car.)

The prototype for the system was completed last October, and user testing followed. Pernilla Johnni, a coordinator for the project, says the initial tests of the navigation systems were promising, but there is a long way to go, especially in refining the accuracy of positioning for users with no other means of assistance, such as a service dog.

Uppgård agrees. One of main the challenges is positioning, he says. Standard GPS is not good enough, so we are evaluating other positioning technologies, including some rather accurate dead-reckoning software to account for the users movements, and, eventually, the use of RFID and Bluetooth tags on certain objects and obstacles.

A new round of tests, in which users will be able to operate the system alone, will be conducted over the summer. Full deployment is expected by 2010.

Kaza is an editor at the Latvian news agency LETA. Contact him at j_kaza@yahoo.com.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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