For the blind and visually impaired, coming and going as one pleases is a skill earned after years of learning to navigate a world designed to cater to the sighted.
But Carnegie Mellon University researchers are exploring ways to supplement the use of canes and guide dogs with an app that can turn a blind person's GPS-enabled cell phone into something of a seeing-eye phone.
The university's TechBridgeWorld program, which focuses on increasing technology access to underserved and developing communities, and the Robotics Institute's rCommerce Lab have been working the past few years to create NavPal, an Android smartphone app that combines GPS technology with audio and tactile cues to help blind users find their way around.
Bajalee Kannan, project scientist who holds positions with both the rCommerce lab and TechBridgeWorld, said representatives of the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children approached TechBridgeWorld a couple of years ago seeking solutions to help blind people evacuate buildings during emergency situations. The need became all too apparent mid-April, when the Oakland-based school was forced to evacuate after a bomb threat.
Mr. Kannan said researchers decided early on that applying the technology to a smartphone would be the most cost-efficient and accessible approach.
"We figured what we want is low cost in terms of an internal structure solution, we want something that's socially acceptable and we want something that works effectively," he said.
Beyond simple street directions, researchers are ultimately planning to use floor plans and maps created through robotic scans to create images that can guide users around obstacles such as chairs and doors to a building's nearest exit.
So far the group has mapped sections of Carnegie Mellon University's campus and the corridors of the School for Blind Children campus. There are plans to team up with the Oakland Business Innovation District, Pittsburgh's Department of City Planning and CMU's Traffic 21 transportation project in the future.
The group has developed a working prototype that fits several versions of the Nexus S Android phone and is working on a beta version that integrates visual maps, textile and audio components into a single app.
Ermine Teves, TechBridgeWorld project assistant, said needs assessments conducted with the School for Blind Children, the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and volunteers referred by Blind and Vision Rehabilitative Services of Pittsburgh have proved critical to helping the team understand design flaws that might have gone unnoticed by seeing testers.
For instance, a setting that allows users to jump between menus by drawing symbols on a phone's touch screen is being re-examined because researchers noticed during testing that blind users couldn't easily draw inside the borders of the phone's touch screen.
"We don't just want to say, 'Here's our solution, let's dump it on you guys.' It's more like, tell us about your challenges, what would you like to see in this kind of system," Ms. Teves said.
Spero Pipakis, access technology coordinator for Blind and Vision Rehabilitative Services, said using GPS to help the blind navigate certain areas isn't groundbreaking, but the NavPal app would be significantly less costly than what's currently available.
The Sendero Adventure GPS system, a cell-phone sized system with Mobile Geo software designed specifically for blind users, retails for $898 plus tax. Mobile Geo 2.7, which features upgraded country maps and can be installed on cell phones, is available for $248.
Mr. Pipakis, who is visually impaired, is using a GPS navigation system for the blind featuring hardware that retails around $6,000, a price tag he said caused organizations sponsoring tools for blind individuals to balk.
"I'm lucky to be able to have that GPS," he said. "Designing it to work on a smartphone gives you a little more options; the user can look at different phone plans and then install this app."
While the research is still in its earliest stages and requires funding and support in order to be completed, Mr. Pipakis is already excited about its potential.
"If you look at the number of people who are blind and visually impaired and the number who travel independently, it's not as high as we would like it to be. The more places and spaces are mapped out, the more confident people will feel traveling independently," he said.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.