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New Tech for Blind People Is Lighting the Way

Joanne Furio | February 18, 2016 | Story News and Features National

This story is part of the March feature "Blind People Don’t Need Your Help—They Need Better Design." Read it here.

The Digital Guide Dog
When Toyota’s San Jose–based Partner Robot Division started work on a navigation-and-information device for blind users, it sponsored a study to find out what blind users want—which turned out to be a pretty, neck-worn device that looks like jewelry and doesn’t interfere with the mobility methods, like a cane or a guide dog, that they’re already using. Assured it was on the right path, the division took a prototype of its “navigation necklace” to LightHouse Labs, where representatives received a lesson on cane use and dined at Opaque, a restaurant that blindfolds eaters to heighten their sensory experience. The device, whose working name is Blaid, will provide detailed 3-D information on elements in the environment. The goal is for it to be functional without GPS, which is not always reliable indoors, or beacons, which have to be installed. It was unveiled in 2015, but a release date has not been announced.

The Airport Concierge, the first indoor navigation app that assists the visually challenged in navigating an airport (SFO’s Terminal 2), was created in response to a Request for Proposal from the city of San Francisco. Working with LightHouse Labs, an Austria-based team devised a system that steers users to computer plug-in stations, restrooms, gates, and other sites.

Where’s the Matterhorn?
Interactive Maps, a collaboration between Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute and Touch Graphics, makes use of smart-pen technology. Its BART maps, introduced last year, provide a detailed layout of every BART station and its environs and identify nearby bus stops. Its Disneyland maps are available at the Magic Kingdom’s visitors’ center.

News Everybody Can Use
AGOGO, a 15-member San Francisco–based startup, produces a curated streaming service for news, entertainment, and sports. Since meeting with LightHouse Labs, the company has begun to aggregate its podcasts into an accessibility channel.

Photo Synthesis
VizSnap, an iPhone app developed by Santa Cruz grad student Dustin Adams, allows blind people to easily organize their photos (yes, they do take photos): It stamps the date, time, and location of shots and permits the user to record notes on images.

The Pin of Power
Fingertips Labs manufactures OTO, a voice-activated controller that operates smartphones, tablets, and computers. The round, wearable example of universal design can be worn as a bracelet, necklace, or clip-on pin.

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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