Bluetooth system orients blind and sighted pedestrians in urban environments
2 October 2008
A new system based on Bluetooth wireless technology places a layer of information technology over the real world to tell pedestrians about points of interest along their path as they pass them.
The Talking Points urban orientation system, which was developed at the University of Michigan, is designed primarily for blind people but can also assist those with poor and normal sight.
"Blind people can get from point A to point B. They learn to count steps if they have to, but they miss the journey because they don't always know what they're passing. The idea behind Talking Points is to enhance the journey," said James Knox, adaptive technology coordinator for the University of Michigan's Information Technology Central Services and one of the system's developers.
"Talking Points can be viewed as a first step in the direction of an audio virtual reality designed for people with blindness and very useful to the sighted community as well," Knox said.
For the sighted community, the system could give passersby a peek at the specials or sales inside a business. It could offer on-the-go access to customer reviews. For blind pedestrians, it could do the same, but it would also fill those gaps in knowledge. Talking Points could help visually-impaired people find public restrooms, police stations, public transportation and restaurants with Braille menus, for example.
"If it caught on, this would be an effective way to tag the whole world," said Jason Stewart, a master's student in the School of Information who is involved in the project. "Anyone with a reader could use it to find out more information about where they are."
Similar systems exist, but Talking Points is the first known to use Bluetooth, cater to both the sighted and the visually-impaired, allow people to operate it entirely with voice commands, and incorporate community-generated content through a website.
Knox and collaborators in the School of Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science created an early version of Talking Points years ago.
A group of master's students and undergraduates has given the project new energy. They shrunk the receiver and switched the transmitting technology from RFID to the more popular Bluetooth. They are also exploring other technologies such as GPS.
The Talking Points system includes several components:
"This project enables a type of augmented reality," said Hilden, one of the students who will present the research at Ubicomp. "It shows how we can take user-generated information from the Internet and lay it over reality to help people make sense of where they are in their environment and what the possibilities are around them."
In addition to developing a prototype receiver, the students tested their system in field simulations with visually-impaired and sighted people and conducted focus groups.
"Location-based guide systems of one kind or another have been built and re-built by academic researchers for over a decade now, but this is the first project that has really focused on the needs of the visually impaired and gone out to make sure the system is being developed to meet those needs," said Mark Newman, an assistant professor in the School of Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.