App to help the blind navigate nears completion

U researchers are developing an app to help people who are blind or visually impaired navigate streets.

Tyler Gieseke

Walking through construction zones is challenging for Nicole Plan, a recent University of Minnesota graduate who’s visually impaired.

When Plan attended the University, crossing campus was sometimes confusing, she said, because sidewalks often closed for construction of the Green Line light rail.

“You don’t know where the obstacles are,” Plan said.

University researchers and students are developing a smartphone application to help people who are blind and visually impaired, like Plan, navigate Minneapolis streets safely. But it could still be a while until the app is available for users.

The project began in 2010 and is nearly complete, but there are a few steps left until the app could be used at intersections throughout the city, said Chen-Fu Liao, a senior assistance engineer at the University’s Minnesota Traffic Observatory.

To complete the project, the research group still needs to obtain traffic signal information from Minneapolis city officials, Liao said.

The app provides users with an intersection’s description as they approach and allows them to request walk signals — all from their smartphones.

Ken Rodgers, who is blind and works as a disability program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the app will be a significant aid to the blind community and will make crossing streets safer.

“If we have to move to push a button and then have to get back in place, it’s a challenge,” Rodgers said.

Another feature of the app will alert users as they near construction zones and instruct them on how to avoid the obstacle.

MnDOT provided funding for the construction-zone portion of the project, Liao said.

“It does sound promising,” said child psychology senior Jacob Vasquez, who is blind. “I can’t wait until they do release it to the public.”

University students have contributed to the app throughout its development process.

About a year ago, researchers attended a Disabled Student Cultural Center meeting, Vasquez said, and presented a preliminary version of the app to group members.

Also, several University graduate students have helped create the app, Liao said. One of them was Sowmya Ramesh, who graduated in 2011 with a master’s degree from the computer science department and said she worked on coding for the app during her last semester at the University.

The work was meaningful and inspiring, she said, because she knew it would help people later on.

“It’s really exciting and motivating when you get to work on such cool projects,” Ramesh said.

The research team has also talked with the University’s Parking and Transportation Services to use the intersection of Harvard and Beacon streets Southeast as a testing ground for the app’s technology, Liao said, but progress on that front has also slowed.

The University owns the infrastructure of the intersection, but the signal information Liao’s team wants to access is the city’s property, said Yilun Xu, a PTS traffic engineer. The city has to give permission before researchers can work with the traffic signal, he said.

Liao said he hopes to conduct research at the intersection within the next few months.

Once it’s completed, Liao said the goal is to offer the app to users free of charge. Right now, the app works on Android phones, but researchers will expand availability to other smartphones.

The idea for the project came partly from a desire to give people who are blind and visually impaired more control when navigating, Liao said. With an app, users have a choice whether to use its assistance.

Sometimes, he said, blind or visually impaired people prefer to have more discreet assistance so they aren’t treated differently.

Plan said the app could also help users who can’t locate the walk signal button at stoplights or don’t know how many lanes they need to cross.

“I think it’s a really good idea,” Plan said. “It helps you figure out where you are in space.”