Fuzzy, four-legged GIS/GPS? Not so fast…

from a student in Intro to GIS

Is GPS the next generation’s guide dog? Florida Reading & Vision Technology thinks so. Their latest gadget is BrailleNote GPS, a plug-in for their classic BrailleNote product platform. BrailleNote GPS supposedly enables the visually impaired to “know where you are, where you’re going, and the best way to get there.” Wait—I thought that’s what common sense was for?

Not so fast. For the visually impaired, navigating even simple city streets can present a tremendous challenge. Imagine traversing Montreal with no sense of sight. Suddenly street names vanish, sidewalk curbs become invisible cliffs, and the stray trashcan left outside becomes a dangerous roadblock.

Traditionally these problems have been solved the old-fashioned way: with canes and guide dogs. But while these solutions can help scan the sidewalk for most physical dangers, neither aid in the navigation of street names, directions, or other intellectual data. This is where the BrailleNote GPS steps in.

The BrailleNote GPS enables the user to create routes to destinations and understand the street layout. It keeps track of speed, direction and altitude, and can do things like announce upcoming street intersections and other pertinent data about select points of interest. All of this is done through a cell-phone sized GPS receiver plugged into Florida Reading & Vision Technology’s flagship product, the BrailleNote. When combined with streets maps and other geographic data, the BrailleNote GPS can relay information from satellite signals to calculate precise location information and all this other, specialized information.

You might say this all sounds pretty great, and I would almost agree with you. I like the fact that the BrailleNote GPS solves several key problems, especially that of navigating unfamiliar city streets, announcing street intersections, and creating specialized routes. Yet these are the macro problems the visually impaired face. They are the problems that can be solved rather quickly—for example, by asking other people for street names or directions to a hotel—and all without the $8,000 price tag that comes with all the software.

I think it’s the micro problems that are the worst the visually impaired face. BrailleNote GPS does nothing to help with these. What about the bumps and barriers in the sidewalk that are too small to be caught by the GPS’s approximate two meter accuracy? These random sidewalk obstructions—like other people, debris, trees, fences—pose the worst problems. These are the things that really trip people up. I don’t see us getting by in the future without the old-fashioned way of navigating these barriers (canes and guide dogs) because, quite frankly, GPS will never be accurate enough. Current commercial GPS satellites do not offer a centimeter’s accuracy and consumer devices at this point are incapable of handling that degree of accuracy. And if I’m wrong and this ever changes, you can bet it’s not going to come with a cheap price tag. I think guide dogs and canes are still the most reliable system, maybe supplemented by a handheld in-car navigation GPS (which is much cheaper) to navigate unfamiliar cities. I don’t think the BrailleNote GPS is worth it.

But then again, I’m not blind.

One Response to “Fuzzy, four-legged GIS/GPS? Not so fast…”

  1. totunroz says:

    I don’t know how a BrailleNote GPS looks like, but I sure hope that for that price the visually impaired are getting a device that’s easy to use too. Because using technology is great, but it’s often difficult to find a device that doesn’t require navigating through complicated menu systems. How many cell phones today have different tones for every key? Of course, the blind can manage without tones too, but it would sure simplify things and make dialing faster if such features were available. How about the rest of the menus? Aren’t they getting more and more complicated?
    As for the obstacles that no GPS in the world at this point can worn you about.. I’d add holes and open sewers as the greatest dangers (we don’t get much of these in Canada, but elsewere, there are plenty).
    So what are the blind to do for now? Keep using the canes and guide dogs and hope for some future advances in technology that will bring them a little bit of independence and that is also affordable, easy to use and reliable.