Mobile System To Help Blind Get Around
By Carlo Longino, Fri Jun 11 19:15:00 GMT 2004

A Finnish research center has come up with a mobile phone-based system to help the blind move about the town.

VTT, a government-owned research group, is developing the "Noppa" project, a particularly cool-sounding system which uses a voice-controlled 3G phone coupled with a GPS device to help blind users figure out where they are and how to get where they want.

Users tell the device where they're going, and remote server sends back directions, but also warns of obstacles along the way, linking to municipal databases for construction information, and provides public-transport timetable information. Everything is voice-controlled so users don't have to memorize button locations or even deal with them.

The service is currently operating in two Finnish cities, and will be tested by a group of blind users in the fall. VTT's researchers have also outlined some other services they'd like to include, like a collision detector that warns users of immediate obstacles and a database of street and other signs that could be spoken to users.

This project emphasizes the very real possibilities to improve people's lives that a constant, mobile high-speed data connection can provide. While it's easy for many of us to connect a Bluetooth GPS unit to our handset and use a navigation program, the real genius here is in the interface and the integration with outside databases. But what's also exciting are the other possibilities this system would enable beyond only helping the blind -- it could provide the basis for a comprehensive tourist information service, or could be reworked to let taxi drivers ask for directions using the voice-recognition system, or any number of other ideas.