Seeing-eye and navigation technologies mean more freedom for the blind

A hand-held device that reads GPS signals, and one with a mini-camera, promise big advances.

Keep your seeing-eye dog. And don't leave your cane behind. But as of next spring, if you're blind, they're not your only options for street-finding - or even restaurant menu-reading.

Last month, the European Space Agency and ONCE, Spain's national organization for the blind, teamed up to unveil the prototype of a new GPS device called Tormes, which will help users pinpoint locations or navigate unknown areas within six feet of accuracy. Equipped with a braille keyboard, a GPS receiver, and a voice synthesizer, the hand-held device will weigh less than two pounds and can be carried over the shoulder.

Though Tormes has its limitations - designers say alone, it will not be exact enough to direct users to a doorway or mailbox - it represents a significant advance over current GPS-based systems for the blind, which are accurate to between 15 and 20 yards and don't work when the signals are blocked by tall buildings. While that degree of exactitude enables a blind person to cross a major street, they say, the Tormes system - which receives GPS signals via the wireless Internet - could help them determine which pavement they're on.

What's more, the new system's web connection promises users an unprecedented degree of autonomy. With it they will be able not only to find restaurants, but to hear their menus read.

"Wireless access will translate to downloads as a person walks through town," says Richard Long, an orientation and mobility specialist at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. "It will not only tell him/her where things are, but also that the Big Macs are on sale on Tuesday."

But critics caution that though Tormes may prove an invaluable orientation aid, it won't guarantee safe travel. "It does not replace the seeing-eye dog, because the GPS gives only location, whereas the seeing-eye dog understands the local location and the context," says Mark Spitzer, the CEO of MicroOptical, a company that develops technology for people with low vision. But, he and others say, a talking device that can direct users to within six feet of their destinations is a promising new use of GPS technology.

"Location information is the most important aspect of these technologies," says Mike May, a blind businessman and president of Sendero Group, a company dedicated to releasing GPS products for the blind. He compares the new device's function for blind users to that of street signs for sighted ones: You get your bearings from them, but they don't tell you where to go.

Engineers say a device that approaches that function more closely could also soon be market-ready. Physicist Peter Meijer, a senior scientist at Philips Research Laboratories in Eindhoven, Netherlands, is currently developing a camera-based vision technology that would mean centimeter-scale accuracy within arm's length of its user.

Called vOICe, the software runs on a regular notebook PC and is being designed to integrate with hand-held GPS systems when they come on the market.

Dr. Meijer envisions the user of his device guided by GPS and speech software to the door of a building, then prompted about the location of the knob by the finely tuned camera view. He says the technology will allow a user to accurately grasp a cup of coffee just set down on a table.

Experts whose goal has been to get such products out of research labs and into the hands of the blind are optimistic. Though the technology might not be perfect, they say, each innovation means a higher degree of freedom for blind users. And they aren't the only ones likely to benefit. Marketability to sighted users will drive advances in the technology Dr. Long predicts.

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