Navigational apps for blind people may have broader appeal

There are new apps specifically designed with pedestrians and accessibility in mind.
There are new apps specifically designed with pedestrians and accessibility in mind. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Nearly every blind person has at least one story of getting lost or disoriented.

Despite the use of walking canes, guide dogs, help from strangers and popular navigational apps like Google Maps, losing one's way is still a huge issue for many blind and low-vision people, said Mr Clark Rachfal, director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind.

Simply hearing directions from an app like "in 500 feet turn right" often is not enough information to guarantee independence and safety.

"We travel our familiar routes because we know the path is accessible and we know our familiar landmarks," Mr Rachfal said.

That may change, though, with the release of new apps specifically designed with pedestrians and accessibility in mind. Thanks to improvements in mapping technology and smartphone cameras, a number have emerged with features like indoor navigation, detailed descriptions of the surrounding environment and more warnings about obstacles.

"We're still early on. These technologies have just been popping up over the last 10 years," Mr Rachfal said. "I think there's a lot of mainstream potential to providing greater access to transport and information for people with disabilities and the broader community."

An example is MapInHood, which has been released only in Toronto. It was designed to assist blind people but could have mainstream appeal. The app provides personalised navigation that allows pedestrians to access information about potential obstructions including pavement traffic, construction hazards, which intersections have accessible kerb cuts, bicycle parking, and the locations of benches, food carts and water fountains.

It also offers navigation that avoids stairs, steep slopes or all obstacles - tools that help people with disabilities but which can also benefit someone carrying a suitcase or pushing a stroller.

Another app, NaviLens, uses colourful QR codes with large boxes that can be scanned by a smartphone from up to 12m or 20m away, depending on the size of the QR code. The codes trigger your phone to provide information about the point of interest in front of you, and "ding" as you face the sign, while telling you how far away you are.

This can help blind people better pinpoint bus stations or subway station entrances, while also allowing them to get accurate location information in situations where a GPS signal is unreliable, like underground or in towering urban jungles. The information is offered in up to 34 languages, making it a potential tool for travellers who may not speak the local language.

But in order for this app to be integrated into an everyday commute, cities, towns and organisations all over the world would also need to install signs with the QR codes along routes - a tall order.

Many of these apps are based on existing, open-source mapping data, such as OpenStreetMap, a free, editable map of the world created by thousands of volunteers.

Mr Greg Stilson, head of global innovation at the American Printing House for the Blind, believes that besides being useful for blind and low-vision people, the apps that ultimately succeed will be those that provide benefits other than accessibility - helping hospitals keep track of equipment or assisting warehouses in tracking products, for example - and require very little additional infrastructure to set up.

As technology gets better at recognising or guiding people through obstacles and pathways, Mr Stilson said, these types of apps could eventually give way to some sort of autonomous pedestrian navigation tool, much like self-driving cars, but for pavements.

"That's potentially the next big frontier," he said. "Maybe it's not mapping out the exact space, but maybe it's helping a blind person navigate in real time."

Another big frontier, he added, is indoor mapping technology. Many navigation apps today stop at the door, right when getting around can become even more challenging for people who are blind or have low vision.

But some apps, like GoodMaps, are starting to venture into creating navigational tools for indoor spaces like airports, train stations, office buildings, malls and hospitals.

GoodMaps uses a 3D environment mapping technology called Lidar (light detection and ranging) - which can detect distances to surrounding objects - to scan indoor buildings and spaces.

With these scans, GoodMaps creates a map that it uploads onto a cloud service. Building owners control access to the map, but assuming it is available, anyone can use it, pointing their phone around the space. The app will then compare the image on the phone with the image in the cloud, telling users where they are, giving them directions or announcing out loud what is around them.

"You as a sighted person are going to be able to enter more and more buildings and find your way around more quickly than ever before because of the work we're doing of enabling accessible navigation," said GoodMaps chief executive Jose Gaztambide.

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