Almost all blind people have at least one history of loss or disorientation.
Despite the use of canes, guide dogs, help from strangers, and popular navigation apps like Google Maps, Clark Rachfal, director of advocacy and government affairs for the American Council of the Blind, has stated that losing one’s way remains a huge problem for many blind people. and visually impaired people. Just hearing instructions from an application like “at 500 feet, turn right” is often not enough information to ensure independence and safety.
“We travel our familiar roads because we know the path is accessible and we know our familiar landmarks,” he said.
That could change, however, with the release of new apps specifically designed for pedestrians and accessibility. Thanks to improvements in mapping technology and smartphone cameras, a number have emerged with features such as indoor navigation, detailed descriptions of the surroundings and more obstacle warnings.
“We are still at the beginning. These technologies have emerged over the past 10 years, ”said Rachfal. “I think there is a lot of potential to provide better access to transportation and information for people with disabilities and the community in general.
One example is MapInHood, which has only been released in Toronto. (The company’s list of apps says it plans to grow in the coming months if it generates enough funds.) It was designed to help people who are blind, but may have general appeal. The app provides personalized navigation that allows pedestrians to access information about potential obstacles, including sidewalk traffic, construction hazards, intersections with accessible curbs, bicycle parking, and traffic. location of benches, food carts and water fountains. It also offers navigation that avoids stairs, steep inclines or any obstacles – tools that help people with disabilities but can also benefit someone carrying a suitcase or pushing a stroller.
Another app, called NaviLens, uses colorful QR codes with large boxes that can be scanned by a smartphone up to 40 or 65 feet away, depending on the size of the QR code sign. The codes trigger your phone to provide information about the point of interest in front of you, and “ding” when you face the sign, while letting you know exactly how far away you are.
This can help blind people better locate bus stations or metro station entrances, while also allowing them to get accurate location information in situations where a GPS signal is unreliable, such as underground or in the towering urban jungles. Information is offered in up to 34 languages, making it a potential tool for travelers who may not speak the local language.
But for this app to be integrated into a daily commute, cities and organizations around the world would also have to install signs with QR codes along routes – a tall order.
Many of these apps are based on existing open source map data, such as OpenStreetMap, a free and editable world map created by thousands of volunteers.
One potential problem is that anyone can edit these maps and post incorrect information, and OpenStreetMap relies on other contributors and volunteers to find inaccuracies and correct them. Other applications using participatory information, such as MapInHood, should face the same problem.
These apps show great promise, but some people are cautious. Roland Allen, a cane travel instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, has uploaded a few, but doesn’t think they’ll ever completely replace his cane. He is wary of relying solely on expensive phone technology can lead to problems and could leave someone stranded if their battery is dead.
“My personal belief is that technology is something you only use if you can’t do it independently first,” he said.
However, he said that as long as the apps were affordable and provided something he couldn’t already do with canes or guide dogs, he fully supported the development of these new technologies. He also added that they must be compatible with other tools used by blind people. This means that they should be relatively hands-free and should deliver information efficiently.
In addition to being useful for people who are blind and visually impaired, Greg Stilson, head of global innovation at the American Printing House for the Blind, said he believes the applications that ultimately succeed will be those that deliver benefits. in addition to accessibility – helping hospitals track equipment or assist warehouses in product tracking, for example – and require very little additional infrastructure (signage, Bluetooth connectivity, etc.)
As technology improves to recognize or guide people through obstacles and lanes, Stilson said, these types of apps could eventually give way to some sort of stand-alone pedestrian navigation tool, much like autonomous cars, but for sidewalks.
“This is potentially the next big frontier,“ he said. “Maybe it doesn’t map the exact space, but maybe it helps a blind person navigate in real time.”
Another big frontier, he added, is indoor mapping technology. Today, many navigation apps stop at the door, so getting around can become even more difficult for people who are blind or have low vision.
But some apps, like GoodMaps, are starting to venture into creating navigation tools for indoor spaces like airports, train stations, office buildings, shopping malls, and hospitals.
GoodMaps uses a 3D environmental mapping technology called lidar (light sensing and telemetry) – which can detect distances from surrounding objects – to digitize buildings and interior spaces. With these scans, GoodMaps creates maps that it uploads to a cloud service.
Building owners control access to the map, but assuming it’s available anyone can use it, pointing their phones 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 instructions, or announcing out loud their surroundings.
“As a sighted person, you are going to be able to enter more and more buildings and find your way faster than ever before thanks to the work we are doing to enable accessible navigation,” said José Gaztambide, Managing Director of GoodMaps.
He added that the company is also developing a version of the app for people without vision problems (using text displays instead of audio ads), and foresees a world someone could walk into a store in. search for a specific item and jump to it directly. without having to walk the aisles.
Achieving this vision, or that of other developers of accessible navigation applications, depends on the number of people who click on the download.