Contributed by Joel Zimba, Special Projects Coordinator, MDTAP
I recently came across this article, 9 advances helping visually-impaired people navigate cities, in which many technologies discussed on our blog or posted on our news feeds are explored. Navigation apps and related tools have always been a bit of a hobby to me, thus making this article all the more interesting. It seems like each new device solves a particular kind of problem, which means an entire assistive technology toolkit must come into play while navigating.
In some respects, this means selecting the best tool for the job. On the other hand, if the mainstream approach to travel were to be sure you had your bag of maps, a GPS system, a compass and remote navigation experts to help you get where you were going, one might think the technology is flawed. We push the technology to the limit. Every user has slightly different needs. The lowest common denominator approach, which works in commercial products, simply doesn’t work here.
In the near future I plan to feature the navigational toolkits of other blind travelers. In the meantime here is mine: While in route, pinning down my actual location can be difficult. I use two tools to do this. LookAround from Sendero is a free app which gives approximate location and the nearest intersection. Ariadne GPS seems to almost magically know an address range for my location. These two keep the ball rolling, especially when in an unfamiliar location.
The walking directions from Apple Maps or Google Maps work quite well (mass transit is a completely different kettle of fish). The minute detail from LookAround and Ariadne help to keep the navigational plan going according to the bigger chunks provided by these mainstream GPS tools.
Constantly switching among these three apps does the way-finding part very well. When selecting a destination, BlindSquare, or even Yelp can be a great place to start. At any given time, I could have up to five apps which require GPS data. So, I have to add an external battery to the mix for suitable battery life.
The Sunu device mentioned in the above article is similar in function to a device I had built by VLINC a couple of years ago. I have used the prototypes of Sunu and while vastly miniaturized and waterproofed, it is essentially the same principle of object detection over varying distances. A widely available and affordable tool like Sunu will doubtless serve all kinds of innovative purposes. We have a similar tool in the MDTAP library which houses the vibration motors in a pair of glasses. Responses have been mixed, but there is much interest in the idea. I believe Sunu to be a better approach.
That brings us to in-door navigation. Everyone wants it. It isn’t just an issue of assistive technology. For now though, it’s not going anywhere. Quite a few exhibitors at the recent CSUN conference were explaining their novel approach to in-door navigation, and the article discusses several as well. All of them require cost and or considerable modification to the surroundings. Until there is a single standard which is inexpensive, especially in retrofitting situations, in-door navigation will prove difficult. Industrial settings have come up with navigational systems for robots or what we now are calling drones. This may lead to a surprising in-door solution which makes everyone happy. I predict the biggest change in the in-door navigation arena over the next few years.
In short, there are many great tools currently available. Many of them make life easier and safer. I see no real game changers, though I believe there will be—and likely sooner than any of us expect.