by Anil Lewis
From the Editor: One of the most liberating experiences of my life occurred after I received a long white cane, received enough instruction to use it, and was given a pass to travel off the campus of the Missouri School for the Blind by myself. For the first time in my life, outside travel did not mean shuffling my shoe along the edge of the sidewalk, holding my arm across my body to protect myself against poles and signs, and fearing with every step that I would find a drop-off or, God forbid, an open manhole. It took some time for me to realize that the cane was not only an outdoor tool but was both effective and necessary when traveling in many indoor environments.
As wonderful as a cane and a dog can be, much information still exists that we have a hard time getting as blind people. What store are we passing in a mall? Where is the closest restroom? Where is a bench I can use while my wife spends hours going through the dress shop? If I am in a crowded banquet hall and leave my chair to run an errand, how do I find that chair without disrupting the festivities by asking a bunch of questions? There is much to be explored in all of this indoor technology that looms on the horizon, and it is no surprise that the Jernigan Institute is playing a leading role in helping to publicize what is available, ensuring that developers have a clear vision of what blind people need in this area, and coordinating efforts to see that the resulting technology is something that blind people really want and need. Here is what the executive director of our Jernigan Institute says about ongoing efforts to encourage the development of indoor travel technology:
Marc Maurer, the immediate past president of the National Federation of the Blind had the audacity to believe in the dream of a blind person independently driving an automobile and established the NFB Blind Driver Challenge™. This groundbreaking initiative of our NFB Jernigan Institute challenged universities, technology developers, and other interested innovators to build interface technologies that empower blind people to drive a car safely and independently. The power of partnering the nonvisual expertise of the National Federation of the Blind with the engineering talent of Dr. Dennis Hong and his graduate students at Virginia Tech, while taking advantage of the innovative navigation capability possessed by the engineers at TORC Robotics, culminated in a demonstration of the capacity of the blind with our current president, Mark Riccobono, becoming the first blind driver on the Daytona International Speedway in January of 2011. We continue to engage mainstream automobile manufacturers with the goal of ensuring nonvisual access to the vehicle control interfaces that would allow blind people to operate them as they introduce more autonomous functionality. Because we first dared to dream of a car that the blind can drive, we are moving ever closer to transforming our dream of driving into reality. Soon, the blind will be able to drive ourselves, our family members, and our friends to work, to school, or to the local mall. Now we are moving the challenge of developing innovative nonvisual wayfinding technology indoors. Our National Federation of the Blind Indoor Navigation Challenge initiative actively explores partnerships that foster the development of technology that can be used by the blind to access information about the indoor environments in which we travel.
Members of the National Federation of the Blind know that blind people effectively use tools and strategies like long white canes, guide dogs, mental mapping, echolocation, and problem-solving skills to acquire and to make use of environmental information to travel safely and independently outdoors and indoors. In fact, the students at our National Federation of the Blind adult rehabilitation training centers learn to effectively use nonvisual travel skills to move independently and confidently throughout most environments without independent access to the information available to the sighted. Yet, technology affords us an opportunity to enhance our travel experience. Sighted individuals have access to an overwhelming amount of information that assists them as they find their way from place to place outdoors and indoors through the use of maps, kiosks, and signage, which although helpful, are inaccessible to blind people. The information related to storefronts, travel gates, retail sales, and personal safety, readily available to the sighted, remain inaccessible to the blind.
Technology has already proven helpful in providing additional environmental information that helps the sighted and the blind alike to move from location to location, as demonstrated by the ever-growing accuracy of talking GPS navigation systems. Many blind people benefit from an assortment of apps and devices that use these to provide environmental information, which assists them to navigate more independently and efficiently throughout their neighborhoods, across the country, and around the world. The audible instructions, “Move to the far right lane. In 800 feet, turn right onto St. Paul Street,” “Pothole ahead,” and “Left lane closed,” almost makes it seem possible for a blind person to drive today. Unfortunately, GPS technology has proven to be ineffective for use within enclosed environments because these block the satellite signals and thereby makes this technology ineffective indoors.
Our 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 are not a substitute for the acquisition of good travel skills. They are meant to be a complement, an additional tool that enhances the travel experience of an independent traveler by providing access to environmental information currently unavailable nonvisually.
Through our initiative, we foster a true partnership between blind people and nonvisual wayfinding technology experts to spur the development of accessible navigation tools that are designed using universal access principles. We have engaged the expertise of Mr. Mike May to administer our National Federation of the Blind Indoor Navigation Challenge. Mr. May, as president and founder of Sendero Group, has had extensive experience with outdoor navigation since 1994, and he possesses a broad depth of knowledge about a variety of accessible orientation and navigation systems.
We have engaged over thirty NFB Indoor Navigation Challenge partners, representing universities and private businesses, and many have already committed to 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 seek to leverage the expertise and life experience of blind people throughout the research, development, and testing of accessible indoor navigation systems. By working to provide information, resources, and opportunities to all of our NFB Indoor Navigation Challenge participants, we hope to create an incubator for indoor navigation research and best practices, where natural partnerships and mutually beneficial collaborations will be identified and developed. To that end, on November 30 through December 1, 2015, we hosted a summit with the following five Indoor Navigation Challenge partners:
These companies are using innovative approaches to provide nonvisual access to environmental information in creative ways that take advantage of Near Field Communications (NFC), beacon, and wide-band technologies. During our summit, we set up beacon technology throughout the fourth floor of our Jernigan Institute, and two of our participants provided real-time demonstrations of their nonvisual wayfinding technology. Generally the devices were accurate to within ten feet of their reported location. One of the companies reports to be using ultra-wideband technology, which is accurate to one foot, but more expensive. The accuracy of the other solutions is anticipated to continue to improve as the technologies are refined.
During the summit, each participant gave a presentation and answered questions about their specific technologies from members of our Access Technology staff. Although there were similarities in implementation, each technology had a unique approach to providing nonvisual access. Some used audio output; others used audio and vibra-tactile output. The amount of navigation information made available to the user also varied between technologies. Some of the solutions offered walking instructions, others provided information about points of interests throughout the indoor environment, while some provided both. Our evaluation team assessed each solution from the perspective of potential users while taking into consideration a variety of travel skills and technological proficiencies. We leave it to our partners to decide whether or not they share the advice we provided, or to use it to establish a competitive edge. The most valuable recommendation we offered was for the developer to provide the ability for the user to customize the amount of information provided by the system so that it could best meet the needs of the individual user.
Some of our partners have already begun installing their wayfinding solutions in various public spaces, retail establishments, conferences, and both commercial and public transportation venues. With the aggressive mainstream implementation of varying navigation apps and devices throughout a host of venues, our NFB Indoor Navigation Challenge has already begun facilitating collaboration among our partners, promoting the development of a more seamless solution. Boni offered to let Indoo.rs use their NFB beacons. PERCEPT offered to let others take advantage of their software to generate audio walking instructions. Sendero may use an SDK [software development kit] from Loud Steps in the Seeing Eye GPS app. Radius considered working with Boni to provide a nonvisual wayfinding solution for the 2016 Consumer Electronic Show (CES). Unfortunately this did not come together in time for this year’s conference, but perhaps, as a result of this collaboration, the 2017 CES will have accessible indoor navigation technology available. We will continue to encourage communication with and among our existing NFB Indoor Navigation Challenge partners and work to recruit additional challenge participants.
Mr. May, with his years of experience in nonvisual wayfinding technology, has been a tremendous asset in our NFB Indoor Navigation Challenge initiative. His technological expertise has proven to be essential to our progress. We will be bringing greater awareness to our project by giving a presentation on the NFB Indoor Navigation Challenge at the 2016 CSUN conference in March.
There are many technical challenges that remain for our partners to address, and direct communication between our experts and their project engineers will result in the mutually beneficial outcome of effective, nonvisually accessible wayfinding technologies.
As an organization comprised of individuals who would directly benefit from the tools developed through this effort, the National Federation of the Blind remains committed to ensuring the aggressive marketing, mainstream implementation, ongoing innovation, and potential commercialization of these technologies. The annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind, with over 2,500 blind people in attendance, is clearly the ideal venue for testing and demonstrating the leading indoor navigation systems. Stay tuned for announcements of our national convention plans.
The National Federation of the Blind Indoor Navigation Challenge is a research initiative of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, the premier research and training institute developed and directed by blind people, that applies the collective knowledge and life experience of the blind toward the development of innovative solutions to the barriers faced by blind people. Interested individuals and potential research partners should contact us at <[email protected]>.
National Federation of the Blind Indoor Navigation Challenge <www.nfb.org/indoornav>