How Technology Is Helping the Blind Navigate the Physical World

Simply navigating her campus used to be exhausting for this visually impaired professor. She’s trying to change that.   

Developers of assistive technologies for the blind are commandeering increasingly cheap and ubiquitous personal gadgets for their research aims.

Ottó Kálmán/iStock

A lot goes through Chieko Asakawa’s mind as she walks across the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Her cane taps the ground ahead of her. She counts steps between one building and another. She has a few paths memorized. She wonders if the people she hears saying hi and hello are talking to her or answering their cellphones. She worries there may be a dog nearby; she has a phobia. Any distraction—rain, construction noise, chattering students—can disrupt her ability to perceive her environment and get to her destination.

Asakawa, who lost her sight at age 14, is a computer scientist, employed by IBM’s Tokyo arm since 1982. She has developed a variety of technologies to facilitate computer use for the blind: a Braille word processor, a digital library for documents written in Braille, and the IBM Home Page Reader, a text-to-speech Internet plug-in (now defunct, superseded by IBM’s Easy Web Browsing). Now, as a visiting researcher at CMU, she is taking assistive technology from the digital to the physical world. Instead of using technology to tell sight-impaired people what’s trending on Twitter, she’s using it to tell them what’s down the hallway.

Asakawa and her collaborators on the new project, called NavCog, have dotted a part of the CMU campus with beacons: Bluetooth emitters about the size of smoke detectors. Users connect with the beacons via a smartphone app (NavCog’s code is open-source, but the app currently only runs on iOS) and then a Siri-like voice guides them through the campus step by step. The team hopes to pair the beacons with facial recognition software that can identify acquaintances in the stream of passersby and even inform users when people they encounter are holding a cellphone to their ear or being led around by a dog. This system could make Asakawa’s walks through campus a whole lot simpler.  

Developers of assistive technologies for the blind are commandeering increasingly cheap and ubiquitous personal gadgets for their research aims. Just a decade ago, the options were an array of expensive, cumbersome specialty equipment. Now the blind rely on devices that are preexisting, affordable, and often already integrated into daily life. Smartphones are the most common platform for assistive tech, with a variety of GPS and object recognition apps now available, but they are not the only devices being utilized—and technology is helping with much more than getting around.

People with sight impairments are 50 percent more likely to be obese, according to a 2002 study using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eelke Folmer, the head of the Human+ Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno, has a low-cost fix to help visually impaired people exercise more effectively. He’s adapted a Parrott AR 2.0 aerial robot—a drone—to guide blind runners around a track. They follow the whirring sound of the machine. This approach is neither expensive (the AR 2.0 retails for about $300, though you can get a used one for as little as $225) nor technically complicated. Folmer said that the legal restrictions of drone flight have presented more of a challenge than the technological ones—they haven’t actually been able to fly it on campus yet.

The ease and cost effectiveness of modern assistive technology is a sea change from a decade ago. Issac Abdinoor began losing his vision in 2004 due to Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, a rare genetic condition. Then 32 years old and anxious to keep working in real estate, Abdinoor says he spent thousands of dollars on assistive equipment. He bought a magnifier for his computer called a Zoom Text, which he recalls cost $1,200. He tried an array of telescoping devices, including a “Geordi box,” named for the visor-wearing chief engineer of Captain Picard’s Enterprise. It was a set of goggles attached to a camera at the belt that allowed him to zoom in on objects in the distance. It was as cumbersome as it was costly. The backpack-size GPS systems available then weren’t affordable for him.

Now, everything Abindoor needs is available through his phone. He couldn’t keep up with his paperwork-intense real estate business, but he transitioned to a job impossible for a legally blind person a generation ago: bartender.

Peek at any blind person’s phone and you will probably see a selection of special apps. BlindSquare uses GPS to guide users walking through streets. VizWiz allows them to take a photo and submit a question about it, then directs the inquiry to either a computer database or a human worker. Karl Belanger, an access technology specialist for the National Federation for the Blind, says it’s good for identifying items on a shelf or table. Be My Eyes is a similar app that connects directly to a sighted volunteer, who will explain what’s being filtered through the blind user’s camera phone. It’s useful for more complex exchanges, like interpreting postings on a physical community message board or reading street signs.

Some technological developments are convenient for the rest of us but godsends to visually impaired people: Amazon reduces store visits. Uber provides transportation. Audible allows access to a selection of books and articles that vastly outstrips the audio and Braille sections of even a big city library.

Most importantly, the next generation of assistive technology should change visually impaired people’s relationship with information, according to Asakawa. Personal technology allows data to be poured into the minds of the sighted, without realization or effort, through devices that have become as taken-for-granted as fingers and toes. But visually impaired people “always have to be active very active to get information,” she says. “It never just comes to us.” And the blind never take a walk just to clear their minds, says Asakawa. It takes a lot of mental energy just to get around.

This could soon change. Asawaka imagines walking into a coffee shop. Beacons will communicate with a mobile device and guide her to the counter. The same device will read her the menu of drinks. It will scan the area for an empty table and direct her to it. Thanks to a gadget that is always on, always with her, and always gathering information on her behalf, her mind can finally wander.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.