App Will Help Blind, Visually Impaired Navigate Streets

The app tells pedestrians what direction they are traveling.
Molly Novak
February 28, 2012

A University of Minnesota researcher is developing an app that would tell the blind and visually-impaired not only when to cross the street, but which direction they’re going and how many lanes they have to cross.

The app, which will be free to download, will also tell users the name of a street if the user taps the phone and points it in any direction, said Chen-Fu Liao, a senior assistant engineer at the University.

Users tap the phone again to request a walk signal so they don’t have to struggle to find a button to push. The system will tell users when to cross and how much time they have.

Currently, Accessible Pedestrian Signals help visually-impaired people know when to cross a street with a countdown.

Liao works at the Minnesota Traffic Observatory on several transportation studies using Intelligent Transportation Systems and has developed web-based simulations for transportation courses.

Research for the app began two years ago with a pricetag of about $100,000 each year, Liao said. To get started, he and a colleague interviewed 10 visually-impaired people about what they’d like in the product and what format would work best.

“I’m really excited about the whole project,” said Ken Rodgers, president of the American Council of the Blind of Minnesota.

Rodgers said while there are lots of benefits to the app, there are also drawbacks.

While it gives visually impaired people more information than does the APS system, not everybody has a smartphone. He said the more types of platforms that the app works on, the better.

The app will eventually tie right into traffic technology and have the potential to alert drivers that a visually-impaired person is in the vicinity, Rodgers said.

The app is a complement to the APS system but is a completely separate tool. Rodgers said he’s afraid that if the app gets too popular, cities might stop installing APS.

Signals and traffic crossings owned by the city, state or county are obligated by federal Americans with Disabilities Act regulations to make the visual elements accessible to people that can’t see.

“Right now, they do that by installing Accessible Pedestrian Signals,” Rodgers said. The app will not relieve cities of this obligation to provide alternative ways of accessing the crosswalks, he said.

The prototype of the product will be tested in Golden Valley, Minn., beginning in late March or early April.

Linda Spaulding, a certified orientation and mobility specialist, chose the testing sites.

The crosswalks needed to have stoplights, and one has APS while the other does not. Both needed to be close to the Twin Cities, she said.

Researchers wanted the testing sites to be close to the Twin Cities since the people involved in the testing would be visually impaired and would have difficulty traveling far. Spaulding also worked with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to determine which intersections would be safest to use.

There isn’t yet a launch date for the app. Research will continue to improve on its current prototype by looking for ways to help prevent users from veering while crossing the road, Liao said.

A bigger version would include door-to-door guidance that would help users get to bus stops, know when buses are coming and when they’re approaching.

“I think the app is totally cool,” said Rodgers. “It will really help us navigate the streets.”

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