Extra Credit: Sound + Science Symposium by Kimberlie Shiao

I went to the Sound and Science Symposium on Friday, attending James Marston’s talk on “Using Audio Cues to Enhance Navigation and Spatial Learning for the Blind”. Marston is conducting research at UCSB to improve the ease of mobility for the visually impaired, and is visually impaired himself. As he began the lecture, I was surprised by the number of blind or visually impaired people there are- about ten percent of the population and the majority of them are unemployed. This is mainly because they have difficulty independently interacting with the outside world, especially new environments, and thus a number of them stay at home.
In some Asia countries, like Japan, the busier streets have bumpy yellow tiles in the sidewalk (or floor of train stations) for blind people to follow (with different bump patterns for where a turn or crosswalk is, and busy intersections will often have audio cues for crossing), but I don’t think I have ever seen anyone using them. I suspect these tiles don’t actually provide much freedom to a blind person, as it assumes the blind person knows where he or she is going (or that he/she is merely wandering around the city for fun). The technology Marston works with, UCSB’s Personal Guidance System and Talking Signs, aims to remedy this lack of environmental cues. A GPS and device (which can either beep or vibrate on the user’s wrist) helps indicate whether or not the person is facing in the right direction. The device also talks, telling the user how far to go. The more helpful aspect is the Talking Signs, which has the device read out locations in the direction the device is pointed in. Unlike the GPS, Talking Signs is really helpful for blind people because it gives more accurate directions (a GPS doesn’t know which way you’re facing), can be used indoors, and can be used to indicate locations such as “water fountain” or “book store.”
I think Talking Signs is a fantastic way to allow blind people independent mobility. It gives them a good mental map of the area, allowing the blind to take shortcuts they wouldn’t have realized otherwise (a efficiency problem for the blind I never thought of). There is also an excellent amount of precision allowing navigation on the paths of parks. The main draw back to Talking Signs is that it might be hard to install widely and maintain. With Braille, it is fairly easy to make, put up and switch signs (though, I doubt they’re used much, since how would the blind know the sign is there in the first place?) Talking Signs would probably be more expensive, requiring devices to emit the infrared signal and might be difficult to change the message if, say, the bookstore was replaced with a coffee shop. But I think with time, many major public areas such as public transportation terminals and government buildings, would have Talking Signs installed. Businesses could also be encouraged to install Talking Signs because of the new customers it would bring. If a good number of the blind used this technology (hopefully user cost wouldn’t be an issue), and major buildings and stores had Talking Signs installed, I think it could really help these people move around in society again.

-Kimberlie Shiao

Comments are closed.