MINNEAPOLIS -- Deep below the surface in the basement of the engineering building at the University of Minnesota, researchers are working on a smart phone application that could change the way visually impaired pedestrians navigate city streets.
"We think it will be a great breakthrough by providing information to the users," research scholar and senior systems engineer Chen-Fu Liao casually said, after two years of research. The navigational app could be available to more than 50 million visually impaired Americans in the next couple of years.
Liao says it's a cost effective program that takes advantage of a smart phones capabilities, GPS among them. All it requires is adding a small box to an existing, larger traffic signal box to send signals to the user. A single tap on the phone will give the user an audible message that describes the direction he or she is heading, as well as what street they are facing and how many lanes of traffic they'll have to navigate. A double tap will send a signal to the traffic box that the pedestrian is ready to cross. The phone vibrates and declares "walk now, 26 seconds left" when it is safe to cross.
"This information can be used to guide them, which direction they are going and tell them when it's the appropriate time to cross the intersections. Making a decision at the intersection is very critical and it could be life threatening," Liao explained. He worked extensively with the blind community to develop a program that fits their needs and addresses shortfalls in the current system.
"I think it's absolutely fabulous. I have an iPhone; I use an iPhone," Ken Rodgers said after hopping off a metro transit bus. Rodgers lost his vision to an eye disease 16 years ago. He met our KARE 11 crew at the corner of 5th Street and Hennepin and Central Avenues near his home to talk about the possibilities that come with the U's research.
With the help of his dog Havana, Rodgers used the intersection to explain how difficult it is to navigate his way around town, especially at non-standard intersections. The busy spot is equipped with accessible pedestrian signals (APS). They feature the beeping that guides the visually impaired. Rodgers says it works well, but in that particular area, APS is only installed for a few of the more than a half-dozen crosswalks.
"There are three signals I have to wait for so I never know for sure when it's safe to cross this way," he said pointing down 5th Street.
As President of the American Council for the Blind of Minnesota, Rodgers welcomes any technological breakthrough that will make pedestrian crosswalks safer. "I've been clipped a couple of times very close. It's been too close for comfort," he concluded.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota will be fine-tuning and further testing their "smart phone app" on Highway 55 in Golden Valley this spring.
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