Learning from Noppa
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Nov 17 08:30:00 GMT 2004

A project to develop a wireless travel aid for the blind reveals the need for open, accessible databases. The mobile Internet depends on it.

Five thousand years ago, blind people used canes to get around. Today, they still do. And for good reason -- not only do they enable their users to feel obstacles, they also work as echolocation devices to help users "see" curbs, walls, and so on.

But a cane isn't much use to a blind person who has to deal with public transportation systems. Visually impaired people face many challenges getting from point A to point B in chaotic urban environments: trip planning, finding a bus stop or train station, finding the entrance to a station, getting around inside a station, finding the right place to wait for a train or bus to arrive, knowing which train or bus to board, finding the entrance to the vehicle, buying a ticket, finding a seat, getting off at the right stop and so on.

Is it possible to develop a system to help blind people use public transportation? That's a question Noppa hopes to answer. Noppa is an Electronic Travel Aid (ETA) being developed at Finland's Technical Research Centre (VTT), a government-owned organization that conducts applied research closely related to industry. With the three-year Noppa project coming to a close in December, I contacted Ari Virtanen, the VTT scientist who is heading up the project, to find out what's been learned so far.

The Origins of Noppa

The Noppa project has a long history, as does Virtanen's research into robotic aids for the disabled. In 1992, he worked on a robotic personal assistant for handicapped people, and from 2000-2002, he was on the team that developed an autonomous wheelchair. "That gave us a lot of experience with indoor navigation," he says. This led to the goal of developing "personal navigation" systems, especially for the blind, who would benefit greatly from such systems.

The basic user components of Noppa are a mobile phone that's loaded with speech-recognition software and a Bluetooth GPS unit. The Bluetooth connection is used to get real-time bus and train data (the kind that appears on bus stop signs and train platforms to users know when their vehicle is about to arrive). The GPRS connection accesses a custom information server that manages route planning, guidance and speech recognition. The information server also accesses maps, weather information and municipal databases from the Internet. The speech-recognition software allows the user to make verbal requests, and the system uses speech synthesis to tell the user how to get to the correct bus stop or train station and tells him or her which vehicle to board.

Virtanen and his team have prototype systems working in Helsinki and three cities around it, and in Tampere. "Now the prototype is in the user evaluation phase. After that we can evaluate which services are really important for users and start to think about the commercial phase." User evaluation reports aren't in yet, but Virtanen says, "[From] what I have been told, they like it."

Virtanen is quick to point out that Noppa is not a unique idea: "There are several other ETA projects going on around the world." What makes Noppa stand out, however, is the way it attempts to use existing technology infrastructures and data to operate. From a technological standpoint, Noppa "is indeed possible," he says. "Of course there were technical problems -- like how to utilize a speech interface on a mobile phone -- but we managed to solve these."

Waiting for a Real Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

But the real problem wasn't the technology. One of the biggest challenges was getting "decent map material for pedestrian use and interfaces for the realtime information systems," he says. "The information exists, but it is unobtainable. It is either in the wrong format or inside closed information systems. Therefore, work must be done before we are in a true information society, with open standardized interfaces to the information systems. That takes time. If we don't have the information we need to guide the visually impaired properly, we are in trouble.

The lesson? Municipalities (and everyone else) need to stop using closed data formats, start using XML and make their data available on the Net. Opening up access to information will speed up the development of ETAs, not only for the visually impaired, but for everyone.

I'm interested in hearing your ideas about how Noppa-like systems might be utilized by all users of the mobile Internet.