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Updated 10:00 AM September 22, 2008
 

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Bluetooth system orients blind, sighted pedestrians

A new Bluetooth system designed primarily for blind people places a layer of information technology over the real world to tell pedestrians about points of interest along their path as they pass them.

The Talking Points urban orientation system was developed at U-M. Researchers will present their work at two conferences on Sept. 24.

"Blind people can get from point A to point B. They learn to count steps if they have to, but they miss the journey because they don't always know what they're passing. The idea behind Talking Points is to enhance the journey," says James Knox, adaptive technology coordinator for Information Technology Central Services and one of the system's developers.

"Talking Points can be viewed as a first step in the direction of an audio virtual reality designed for people with blindness and very useful to the sighted community as well," Knox says.

For the sighted community, the system could give passersby a peek at the specials or sales inside a business. It could offer on-the-go access to customer reviews. For blind pedestrians, it could do the same, but it would also fill those gaps in knowledge. Talking Points could help visually impaired people find public restrooms, police stations, public transportation and restaurants with Braille menus, for example.

"If it caught on, this would be an effective way to tag the whole world," says Jason Stewart, a master's student in the School of Information who is involved in the project. "Anyone with a reader could use it to find out more information about where they are."

Similar systems exist, but Talking Points is the first known to use Bluetooth, cater to both the sighted and the visually impaired, allow people to operate it entirely with voice commands, and incorporate community-generated content through a Web site.

Knox and collaborators in the School of Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) created an early version of Talking Points years ago.

"Location-based guide systems of one kind or another have been built and rebuilt by academic researchers for over a decade now, but this is the first project that has really focused on the needs of the visually impaired and gone out to make sure the system is being developed to meet those needs," says Mark Newman, an assistant professor in the School of Information and EECS. Newman is a co-author of the papers that will be presented.

The papers are called "Accessible Contextual Information for Urban Orientation" and "Contextual information system for urban orientation of sighted and non-sighted users." Authors of both papers are School of Information master's students Stewart, Michelle Escobar, Jakob Hilden and Kumud Bihani; and recent sociology graduate Sara Baumann.

Developers of the current prototype software are engineering undergraduates Travis (Donggun) Yoo and Josh Rychlinksi, and recent engineering graduate Peter Kretschman.

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