Blog Date: 
Friday, March 27, 2015
Anil Lewis

The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute is the premier research and training institute that applies the collective knowledge and life experience of the blind to the development of innovative solutions to the barriers faced by blind people. We are designing the National Federation of the Blind Indoor Navigation Challenge to combine our expertise and experience with that of other technology and research professionals to partner in the development of universally designed access tools and strategies that enhance independent travel for the blind.  Blind people effectively use tools and strategies like white canes, guide dogs, mental mapping, echolocation, and problem-solving skills to acquire and use environmental information to travel safely and independently outdoors and indoors. In addition, many blind people benefit from the use of state-of-the-art GPS technology to increase their independence and navigate more efficiently throughout their neighborhoods, across the country, and around the world. Unfortunately, GPS technology has proven to be ineffective for use within enclosed environments, which block the satellite signals.

The National Federation of the Blind Indoor Navigation Challenge is a research partnership initiative to foster the development of devices or systems that the blind can use to obtain more useful information about the indoor environments in which we travel, such as schools, airports, hospitals, and shopping malls. These devices will not be a substitute for the acquisition of good travel skills. They will be a complement, an additional travel tool that enhances the travel experience of an independent traveler by providing access to environmental information currently unavailable nonvisually.

Sighted individuals have access to a variety of tools that assist them in traveling effectively outdoors and indoors, including maps, kiosks, and signage, which are inaccessible to the blind.  Information related to store fronts, travel gates, retail sales, and personal safety, which is readily available to the sighted, remains inaccessible to blind people.  The National Federation of the Blind Indoor Navigation Challenge will spur the development of accessible navigation tools that are designed using universal access principles through a true partnership with blind people. As a result, the devices will not only be helpful to the blind, they will also be helpful to the sighted.  No longer will sighted patrons be frustrated by the multicolored, multilevel, “You are here,” schematics at the shopping mall map. They will have ready access to a tool to assist them as they navigate throughout a variety of environments. The National Federation of the Blind Indoor Navigation Challenge will ensure that the same tools being used by the sighted are accessible and useable to the blind.

We will develop an ongoing survey of blind people using a brief questionnaire to assess the need for, and desired functionality of, an indoor navigation device or system. What information should it provide? How should the information be presented to the user? What are some of the value-added features for such a device? How should the device provide information to assist users as they navigate independently from store to store, gate to gate, and point to point within a variety of venues?
Universities and private businesses have already expressed an interest in partnering with us toward the development of indoor navigation devices or systems that will eventually have commercial applications. They are attempting to address the problem in a variety of creative ways that take advantage of beacon technologies, remote vision, image recognition, crowd sourcing, and existing infrastructure.  We will continue to identify research partners as they seek to develop innovative technology that provides access to information about the amenities and services available in the user’s immediate environment. Moreover, we are actively seeking grants and private resources to fund this initiative.

We will incorporate the talents and life experiences of blind people by developing focus groups to conduct evaluations and make recommendations during the development process. Blind people will also be recruited to conduct on-site testing of the various devices and give immediate feedback to our research partners. As an organization comprised of individuals who would directly benefit from the tools developed through this effort, we will remain committed to ensuring the aggressive marketing, mainstream implementation, ongoing innovation, and commercialization of these technologies.  

The National Federation of the Blind Indoor Navigation Challenge is a research initiative of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, the only research and training institute developed and directed by blind people. Interested individuals and potential research partners should contact:

Mr. Anil Lewis, Executive Director
National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute
200 East Wells Street at Jernigan Place, Baltimore, Maryland  21230
(410) 659-9314, extension 2374