Blind World Magazine

Technology is about to become a major player in helping those who can't see get around.

June 21, 2005.
Detroit Free Press, Michigan.

Out at the Leader Dogs for the Blind headquarters in Rochester, technology is about to become a major player in helping those who can't see get around.

While it won't ever replace the sensory help that comes from a dog, the latest in Global Positioning Satellite technology will soon allow blind students to tap into sophisticated mapping and navigation techniques telling them where they are or how to get where they want to go.

"Technology is where we're headed more and more," said Rod Haneline, director of student services for the 66-year-old dog guide school.

As he spoke, he strapped on a black belt containing a specially modified iPaq Pocket PC handheld computer. The belt, like those worn by traffic cops and school safety kids, goes around the waist and over the shoulder.

On one shoulder strap is a tiny speaker. On the other, a GPS antenna.

A touch-screen faceplate on the handheld is set up so blind users can feel where to push to toggle between different controls. Built into the computer is a GPS receiver and detailed maps.

"The idea is that the user can scroll through points of interest and find whatever they want like, say, the bookstore down the street, or a bank or supermarket," Haneline explains, pushing buttons.

Out of the speaker, a digitized voice sounds. "Avon Road is straight ahead," it said. "Rochester Road is to your left."

If the student turns left, the voice notes that and reports: "Rochester Road is straight ahead."

And so it goes, noting the distance and direction and street names of landmarks and points of interest.

Users can record GPS coordinates for things like their home, the office or a nearby park. The system then remembers those spots and, using a network of satellites, can direct the user there through the digitized voice and turn-by-turn instructions.

"It's pretty much standard GPS stuff," said Haneline, "set up so a blind person or someone with impaired vision can figure it out."

What the system doesn't say, of course, is whether there's traffic on those roads or obstacles along the way. That's where the Leader Dog comes in.

The GPS system the school has picked up is known as the Trekker. It's from a Montreal company called Humanware. Each unit costs about $1,500. It works in a moving vehicle like a car or a bus and can announce intersections as they're crossed, restaurants and businesses as they're passed and when a destination is approaching.

One of the features Haneline thinks will be most used is a setting that allows reception and entry of information in complicated environments like sporting areas, parks and university campuses.

The first student to get the Trekker from the school is coming later this month.

"He's a 17-year-old from Florida and a bit of a techie," said Haneline. "He's going to college in the fall, and this is expected to be a huge help. University campuses are hands down the hardest locations for blind people because they are seldom laid out in a grid with any pattern."

Haneline said it will take three days to train someone how to use the system. The average training for a guide dog is 26 days.

"This GPS system is probably not for everyone," he said. "But more and more blind people are using and comfortable with technology, so we expect this will be pretty popular as an additional aid."

In Kalamazoo, Paul Ponchello, a professor and chairman of the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies at Western Michigan University, has been using a similar system for the past year.

"I used to get lost or disoriented three or four times a week," he said.

"That is pretty frustrating. That never happens any more because I can always, always find my way back to my destination. This is a fantastic tool."

Contact MIKE WENDLAND at 313-222-8861 or

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