Denise Albiston,; Utah; August 10, 2005
Computer scientists at Utah State University have created new technology that helps visually impaired students find their way around campus and be more independent.
The 'Way Finder' combines four location technologies into one unit. Individually the four technologies -- a wireless network, pedometer, Global Positioning System (G.P.S.) and digital compass -- have weaknesses, but together they form a device that can navigate a visually impaired student anywhere on campus.
"All the things individually have their quirks, but with sensor fusion, we start to look at them as a whole," said John Nicholson, a graduate student in the computer science department.
The G.P.S. uses satellite signals to guide a user to the desired location. The problem with GPS, however, is the system must be able to see the satellite. In essence, if the user walks under a tree G.P.S. guidance can be disrupted and not accurate.
In an effort to strengthen the G.P.S. guidance, the team installed a wireless, or Wi-Fi, system to link individual laptops to the university computer network. Using the Wi-Fi access points available in most of the University's buildings was an easy and cheap way to determine positions in buildings, Mr. Nicholson said. The unit also includes a pedometer to count the average steps of a man or woman, and a digital compass indicates the direction a user is moving.
The next step, he said, is to condense the 2.2-kg unit to the size of a cell phone or PDA.
For Sachin Pavithran, a visually impaired graduate student assisting in the testing and research of the product, the key is the independence this unit could provide. He said his guide dog can navigate him around obstacles and keep him on the sidewalk, but he can't get him from point A to point B.
Pavithran said, "To do things on my own would be nice."
The unit is not intended to replace a guide dog or a cane, Mr. Nicholson said, but instead is meant to complement those guides. He said combining the two will provide a visually impaired person with a lot more flexibility and independence.
The limitation of the Way Finder is that the units are specialised for an area. Units are programmed with a series of locations that the user can punch into the key pad to get directions from one place to another.