Bluetooth system orients blind and sighted pedestrians in urban
2 October 2008
A new system based on Bluetooth wireless technology places a
layer of information technology over the real world to tell pedestrians
about points of interest along their path as they pass them.
The Talking Points urban orientation system, which was developed at the
University of Michigan, is designed primarily for blind people but can
also assist those with poor and normal sight.
"Blind people can get from point A to point B. They learn to count
steps if they have to, but they miss the journey because they don't
always know what they're passing. The idea behind Talking Points is to
enhance the journey," said James Knox, adaptive technology coordinator
for the University of Michigan's Information Technology Central Services and one of
the system's developers.
"Talking Points can be viewed as a first step in the direction of an
audio virtual reality designed for people with blindness and very useful
to the sighted community as well," Knox said.
For the sighted community, the system could give passersby a peek at
the specials or sales inside a business. It could offer on-the-go access
to customer reviews. For blind pedestrians, it could do the same, but it
would also fill those gaps in knowledge. Talking Points could help
visually-impaired people find public restrooms, police stations, public
transportation and restaurants with Braille menus, for example.
"If it caught on, this would be an effective way to tag the whole
world," said Jason Stewart, a master's student in the School of
Information who is involved in the project. "Anyone with a reader could
use it to find out more information about where they are."
Similar systems exist, but Talking Points is the first known to use
Bluetooth, cater to both the sighted and the visually-impaired, allow
people to operate it entirely with voice commands, and incorporate
community-generated content through a website.
Knox and collaborators in the School of Information and the
Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science created an
early version of Talking Points years ago.
A group of master's students and undergraduates has given the project
new energy. They shrunk the receiver and switched the transmitting
technology from RFID to the more popular Bluetooth. They are also
exploring other technologies such as GPS.
The Talking Points system includes several components:
- A mobile device picks up the Bluetooth signals and speaks or
displays information to the user. In the future, a cell phone could
be the receiver, but this prototype isn't a phone. It is slightly
larger, about the size of a paperback book. If a user wants more
information about a beacon, she can tell the device by voice or
- Bluetooth beacons, or tags, would be located at points of
interest where owners wish to give information to Talking Points
users. Businesses could purchase these beacons, which cost less than
$20. Cities could tag information centers, parks or other buildings,
- A website would allow Talking Points beacon owners to program
their tags. They could update their messages regularly. Once a
beacon is added, other community members could add their comments
about the point of interest. Pedestrians using the system could then
choose to get those comments.
"This project enables a type of augmented reality," said Hilden, one
of the students who will present the research at Ubicomp. "It shows how
we can take user-generated information from the Internet and lay it over
reality to help people make sense of where they are in their environment
and what the possibilities are around them."
In addition to developing a prototype receiver, the students tested
their system in field simulations with visually-impaired and sighted
people and conducted focus groups.
"Location-based guide systems of one kind or another have been built
and re-built by academic researchers for over a decade now, but this is
the first project that has really focused on the needs of the visually
impaired and gone out to make sure the system is being developed to meet
those needs," said Mark Newman, an assistant professor in the School of
Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer
this page on del.icio.us