Technology ‘on board’ helps visually impaired bus passengers find their way
A. Sue Weisler
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For blind and visually impaired passengers, to get to a bus stop—let alone find the correct bus among several at that stop— can prove challenging, whether on Main Street, U.S.A., or Andrews Drive on the RIT campus.
The Rochester Genesee Regional Transit Authority, the local transportation provider, was interested in improving access for these passengers who rely on other riders to help them find the right bus to their destination.
The organization sought out student-engineers to develop a system to communicate between bus and passenger, as well as different points along the way from a building or residence hall to the bus stop. All the technologies needed to sync and provide information in a way that would be accessible to passengers.
One of the first steps in launching the Mobile Landmark Identification Project was to meet with classmates who were blind and visually impaired and who depend on campus public transportation, says Mohamed Mandeel, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student from Manama, Bahrain, and the project’s team leader.
“We were given a problem statement for our project that made us think blind and visually impaired people were ‘handicapped’ and unable to navigate or find their way independently,” he says. “That view changed once we met a few of the visually impaired students here at RIT.”
One of those students was Stephanie Ulman, a second-year mechanical engineering technology major. It took some time for the Marietta, Ga., native to get familiar with the RIT campus.
“The project group needed to know what that person sees or, if they are blind, how they are getting around,” says Ulman, who uses a cane from time to time and is accompanied on campus by Lear, her 6-year-old black Labrador guide dog.
“Sometimes I get stressed when I don’t know where I’m going,” she says, explaining that for individuals with visual impairments, landmarks are different, consisting of familiar starting points then measured steps between other areas or objects.
After taking into account passenger needs, the team began to build the system. The bus transportation company made available the GPS software it used to identify buses and their locations along various routes, primarily the inbound and outbound campus route along Jefferson Road to and from RIT.
“We tried to interface an accelerometer and a compass together without realizing how much work we needed to do in order to get the different components to work,” Mandeel says. “Another challenge was we had to learn about those technologies as we used them.”
The result is a combined network of GPS technology and RFID, radio frequency identification system tags, in strategic locations in buildings and near campus bus stops. The team developed an application for a handheld device or laptop computer that could approximate the passenger’s location through the RFID tags and the bus location using the GPS coordinates. The application plots directions to the bus stop as well as provides the information through voice or sensor commands about bus arrival time and identification at the stop.
The Mobile Landmark Identification system is only one piece of a three-part, multi-year project, says Elizabeth DeBartolo, associate professor of mechanical engineering and advisor for the three student teams. The two other complementary projects— an intra-building navigation system and a tactile interface device—are also in prototype phases. When eventually combined, they will be a comprehensive system making traveling on the RIT campus easier for its blind or visually impaired students, faculty and staff. All three engineering senior design projects are funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s General and Age-Related Disabilities Engineering Program.
“When I talk to the students, it’s not unusual to hear them say that their favorite part of the project was interviewing the customers and seeing how this device is going to actually be used,” says DeBartolo.
Mandeel adds that landmark technology already exists today to make this type of system a reality, but it is expensive. To be able to develop something that meets an individual’s need and is also cost effective is strong motivation to continue working on such a device.