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Developments in Location Based Services for Blind People

Dr. John Gill
21st June 2006

Over the next few years there is likely to be a dramatic increase in services for the general public which are based on knowing your location.  For instance you could use your mobile phone handset to request the location of the nearest bank, and be provided with instructions on how to reach it.  Although the technology coming available offers vast possibilities, only a modest number of services are likely to be commercially viable.  Even fewer are likely to be available which are suitable for use by a blind person, unless concerted action is taken to require their availability.

For blind people the traditional devices to aid mobility have been the long cane and the guide dog.  Although a large number of electronic mobility devices have been developed, their uptake has been very low.  To help with orientation, blind people have had to rely on recognising non-visual landmarks (eg a fountain) possibly in conjunction with an embossed map of the area.

There have been a number of trials of stand-alone electronic beacons; commonly these use infra-red or radio to give pre-recorded audio messages for the blind pedestrian.  However the difference between these and the new systems under development is that the new systems will be part of an integrated network.  They will use short-range radio technology such as RFID, Bluetooth, WiFi and WiMax.

These short range systems will be used in conjunction with long range systems, such as mobile phones, where the network knows the approximate position of the user.  For more accurate positional information, the systems may be supplemented by a satellite positioning systems (such as the American GPS, the Russian GLONASS, or in the future the European Galileo system).  These systems rely on line of sight to a number of satellites so do not work indoors or close to tall buildings.  However iGPS is being developed which should overcome this limitation.

Information about one's position is of limited use unless it can be related to the real environment.  So these systems are usually linked to a database which may include information normally found on a map plus other related information (eg the scheduled times of buses from a particular bus stop or the time until the next bus arrives).  In addition the database could include accessibility information.

For these systems to be of practical benefit to blind people, they must be:

Large sums of money are being invested in developing these systems, but this does not guarantee that they will work as seamlessly as the developers claim.  The European Commission has also funded projects to develop systems of specific benefit to people with disabilities; one of these projects has a budget in excess of ten million pounds.

This is an area which should not be dismissed as some technologists pipe dreaming, but the early systems are unlikely to be free of problems.  However if people with disabilities are to benefit from this technology, they will need to articulate and quantify their unmet needs at an early stage.

Proceedings of PhoneAbility Seminar on Location-based Services for People with Disabilities


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