March 25, 2006.
WATERTOWN, MASS. - When Brian Charlson walks out his front door, he's guided by satellites hovering 11,000 miles above Earth.
In an instant, a tiny Global Positioning System receiver he carries in a pocket can pinpoint where he is and offer step-by-step directions verbally or via a Braille display.
Charlson, who is 50, lost his vision at age 11 in a household accident. Thanks to a GPS system he bought in January, he is navigating the streets he's walked for decades in a whole new way.
Instead of painstakingly memorizing routes, he just types in a street address. If he's hungry, he calls up a list of nearby restaurants and chooses on a whim.
The lightweight laptop, which he slings over his shoulder, contains software locating schools, ATMs, stores, cafes, and just about any other possible destination.
"It's not that I couldn't go to these places before," said Charlson, vice president for computer training services at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton. "But now I don't have to concentrate on counting cross streets when I walk. If I get disoriented, I don't have to ask someone passing by."
Developed by military
The blind community is among the latest beneficiaries of GPS technology, which was developed by the military in the 1970s and has become popular with pilots, hikers, boaters, bicyclists and motorists.
The network relies on two dozen satellites that beam radio signals to determine a user's latitude and longitude and other location information.
Each GPS device for the blind comes with its own street-mapping software, designed with safe walking routes in mind, which most companies update annually. Users also can add their favorite destinations and share customized maps.
Charlson's laptop, a PAC Mate manufactured by Freedom Scientific of St. Petersburg, Fla., also allows him to do the previously unthinkable: Head out for a stroll in a random direction with only his guide dog, Keegan, for company.
He has used his GPS system on several business trips. It guided him on a tour of Capitol Hill.
It even let him walk alone to a wine shop near a friend's house in Alexandria, Va.
Cost a big obstacle
Only about 2 percent of blind people who already use adaptive technology — such as talking computers and personal digital assistants — use GPS, estimated Mike May, founder of the Sendero Group, based in Davis, Calif., which in 2000 became the first to market GPS systems for the blind. May said his company has sold 1,500 BrailleNote, PDA-style GPS devices.
The main obstacle is cost. Sophisticated systems like Charlson's that come with Braille display keyboards cost more than $6,000.
May and others in the industry hope that government agencies that subsidize assistive technology will soon cover GPS equipment.
GPS will replace neither the white canes that some blind people use for navigation nor the traditional guide dog. Sidewalk obstacles, errant drivers, and low-hanging branches are hazards far too small and temporary for any GPS system to detect.
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