Navigational Apps for the Blind Could Have a Broader Appeal

This article is part of the Future of Transportation series, which explores innovations and challenges that affect how we move about the world.

Every blind person has a story of getting lost.

The American Council of the Blind's director of advocacy and governmental affairs said that despite the use of walking canes, guide dogs, help from strangers, and popular navigation apps, losing your way is still a huge issue for many blind and low vision people. Hearing directions from an app isn't enough to guarantee independence and safety.

He said that we travel our familiar routes because we know the path and landmarks.

With the release of new apps that are specifically designed for pedestrians and accessibility in mind, that may change. Thanks to improvements in mapping technology and smartphone cameras, a number have emerged with features like indoor navigation, detailed descriptions of the surrounding environment and more warnings about obstacles.

Over the last 10 years, these technologies have been popping up. I think there is a lot of potential to provide more access to transportation and information for people with disabilities.

MapInHood was only released in Toronto. The company plans to expand in the coming months if they get enough funding. It was originally designed to help blind people. The app provides personalized navigation that allows pedestrians to access information about potential obstructions including sidewalk traffic, construction hazard, and which intersection have accessible curb cuts. navigation that avoids stairs, steep slopes or all obstacles can be used to help disabled people but can also benefit people, for example, carrying a suitcase or pushing a stroller.

The app, called NaviLens, uses colorful QR codes with large boxes that can be scanned by a phone from up to 40 or 65 feet away. The codes will prompt your phone to give you information about the point of interest in front of you, and also tell you how far away you are.

This can help blind people better locate bus stations or subway station entrances, while also allowing them to get accurate location information in situations where aGPS signal is unreliable, like underground or in towering urban jungles. The information is offered in up to 34 different languages, making it a potential tool for travelers who don't speak the local language.

In order for this app to be integrated into an everyday commute, cities, towns and organizations all over the world would need to install signs with the QR codes along routes.

Many of these apps are based on open-sourced mapping data, such as OpenStreetMap, a free map of the world created by thousands of volunteers.

One potential problem is that anyone can change the maps and put in incorrect information, and OpenStreetMap relies on other contributors and volunteers to correct them. MapInHood would have to contend with the same issue.

Some of the apps are cautious. A cane travel instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind has downloaded a few of them, but doesn't believe that they will ever replace his cane. He is wary of relying solely on phone technology, which can come with problems, and could leave someone stranded if their battery dies.

He believes that technology is only used if you can do it on your own.

He said that he was in full support of developing new technologies if they were affordable and could be used with canes or guide dogs. They must be compatible with other tools used by blind people. They should be relatively hands-free and deliver information effectively.

The head of global innovation at the American Printing House for the Blind said that he believes the apps that ultimately succeed will be those that provide additional benefits besides accessibility, such as helping hospitals keep track of equipment or assisting warehouses in tracking products.

Mr. Stilson said that as technology gets better, it could eventually lead to a self-driving car for pedestrians.

He said that it could be the next big frontier. Maybe it is not mapping out the exact space, but it is helping a blind person navigate in real time.

He said that there is a big frontier with indoor mapping technology. People who are blind or have low vision can become more difficult to navigate when navigation apps stop at the door.

GoodMaps, for example, is starting to create navigation tools for indoor spaces like airports, train stations, office buildings, malls and hospitals.

Lidar is a 3-D environment mapping technology that can detect distances to surrounding objects. GoodMaps creates maps and uploads them to a cloud service.

Anyone can use the map if it's available, even though the building owners control access. The app will compare the image on the phone with the image in the cloud to give users directions, or announce what is around them.

The chief executive of GoodMaps said that the work they are doing will allow the blind to enter more and more buildings and find their way around more quickly than before.

He said that the company is working on a version of the app for people with vision issues that will allow them to go into a store looking for a specific item and navigate directly to it without having to wander among the aisles.

The number of people who download the app depends on whether or not this vision comes to fruition.