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Talking maps
January 31, 2013   
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According to official calculations, there are about 100,000 blind people in Poland. The number of visually impaired people, who may also be interested in the project, is difficult to estimate.

There are few devices for blind people with maps, and the geographic data collected by them does not include many major facilities important to the blind. They are most often based on car maps.

Moreover, most existing systems available on the market are flawed because of imprecise positioning. They all use conventional GPS receivers for this purpose, which can be inaccurate, sometimes by more than 10 meters, especially in urban areas.

Only when in motion can the user determine the direction in which they are headed. When they walk slowly, they must walk about 20 meters before the direction indications are correct. This means that the readings (and thus also voice messages based on them) are incorrect, not only in a situation when the user is standing still. They are also incorrect for some time after the user changes the direction of movement when walking. Moreover, the existing devices are expensive. Most of them require special hardware and software, and this means an expense of over $1,000. Only devices that are not very functional are cheaper.

An unprecedented guide

The Talking Maps project aims to develop a mobile geographic information system (mobile GIS). On the basis of information obtained from a database of pedestrian routes in the city, it will find a specific itinerary, from the starting point to the final destination. Working with a GPS receiver and more advanced position and direction sensors, it will also oversee and assist the blind person in moving along the planned route. The system works in a simple way, providing clear and understandable voice messages. In addition, it may keep the user informed about the objects they pass along the way, such as stores or retail outlets.

“The development of systems designed to assist blind people as they move around is an innovative discipline in itself,” says Stepnowski.

Few centers in the world conduct research in this area. The Polish project has several particularly innovative features about it. First of all, the system determines the position far more accurately as a result of the simultaneous use of several complementary sensors. These include GPS and DGPS receivers and an inertial navigation module.

The researchers have also developed their own format of geographic data for blind people and an innovative method for obtaining, storing and sharing this data. A user’s interface used in commonly available mobile devices has been adapted to the needs of the blind. Research is also being carried out on ways of precisely guiding the blind user along a path.

The basic geographic data is available for all of Poland (street names, addresses, etc.). Stepnowski’s team is busy gathering more accurate data (such as the course of the sidewalks and pedestrian crossings) for selected provincial cities. In addition, as part of preparations for the implementation of the system, tools are being created such as a social networking site that will make it possible to obtain accurate data.

A blind person living in areas covered by the collected data will be able to use an advanced version of the system right away. Users from smaller towns will be able to use only basic data until their family, friends, volunteers and local authorities enter additional data associated with this place into the database.

And who will program all the routes for a blind person along which they will be moving in a big city? “There is no such need,” Stepnowski says. The application is smart enough to find the path for the blind person from wherever they are to a specific destination. For now, it is impossible to guarantee the system’s integration with public transport timetables, so the situation will look something like this:

1) A blind person enters into the system a nearby bus stop, for example, as a destination, and the system leads the person to this destination.

2) When the blind user is riding a bus, there is no guidance. They must ask the driver or another passenger, for example, to tell them that they are approaching the place where they want to get off.

3) They get off and enter the destination into the system, for example a metro station or a tram stop, and continue to travel guided by the system. Inside the tram there is no guidance again, but when the blind person gets off, they can program the next leg of the trip.

In this way the system will guide the user to the final destination.

Of course, the blind user needs to know the name of the place they want to reach. It must be in the database. If it is little known, some member of the community must add it to the database. The application will take care of the rest.

The heart of the system is a portable computer—a smartphone with the Android operating system. The blind person can touch any option on the screen and gets a voice message with the name of the option. The device responds differently to touch than an interface for users who can see—it is more difficult to select an option by accident as many steps need to be confirmed. The application itself uses many well-tested as well as experimental assistance mechanisms. The former include speech recognition and the latter recognition of gestures.

The programmers say users will be able to take advantage of the device depending on their age and experience in operating modern devices. But a lot can be achieved through training and practice. A blind person who is skeptical about the touchscreen versions can buy a device with a keyboard.

“For many years, the possibilities of using GIS and geoinformation systems have been one of the main areas of our scientific interest and research and development work,” says Stepnowski. The Talking Maps project fits into this area. But the direct reason why the project was undertaken was because blind people working with the Department of Geoinformatic Systems signaled such a need for a long time. These people have become experts when it comes to systems designed to help the blind find their way around. They pointed to the various shortcomings of these systems.

According to official calculations, there are about 100,000 blind people in Poland. The number of visually impaired people, who may also be interested in the project, is difficult to estimate.

A patent application has already been submitted in connection with the project. A model of the system was developed in the first stage of the project, managed by Łukasz Kamiński, Ph.D.

On Jan. 1, 2012, the second stage began—preparations for implementation, including marketing activities.

The project ends on June 30, 2013, and the finished product is expected to hit the market in 2014.

At the moment, the estimated price of the device is around zl.2,000-2,500. This should decrease significantly after devices fitted with the latest version of the Android operating system become more widespread.

The total budget of the project is zl.4.04 million, including zl.3.5 million in co-financing from the National Center for Research and Development.
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