IBM, Carnegie Mellon are building a navigation app for the blind

By Jonah Comstock
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hqdefaultIBM Research and Carnegie Mellon University are working on a smartphone app that would help blind and visually impaired people navigate their surroundings, by communicating information about the users surroundings to them via audio cues or vibrations.

The app, called NavCog, will initially be specific to the Carnegie Mellon campus, as it will rely on Bluetooth beacons placed around walkways and in buildings. But an open source toolkit will allow developers to build versions for other locales as well. In the future, researchers plan on implementing facial recognition technology that would help tell users when they encounter someone they know.

"While visually impaired people like myself have become independent online, we are still challenged in the real world," IBM Fellow Chieko Asawaka said in a statement. "To gain further independence and help improve the quality of life, ubiquitous connectivity across indoor and outdoor environments is necessary. I'm excited that this open platform will help accelerate the advancement of cognitive assistance research by giving developers opportunities to build various accessibility applications and test non-traditional technologies such as ultrasonic and advanced inertial sensors to assist navigation."

In the app, users will be able to select a location on campus and be guided to it via turn-by-turn directions, either delivered verbally through their headphones or through vibrations in the phone. It will launch on the iOS App Store soon, according to the a joint press release.

The research is promising, but this is also one of those mobile health projects that's seen a handful of attempts over the years. Way back in 2009, a company called iVisit launched an app that was meant to make the smartphone camera into a second pair of eyes for the blind. That technology, called SeeScan, became LookTel in 2010 and was later bought by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong's NantWorks company. The technology became the basis for NantMobile, a marketing technology that no longer has serving the blind in its mission statement.

Pharma company Novartis is a more recent entrant into the space. This summer Novartis released a new Apple Watch and Android Wear app geared at helping visually-impaired people navigate their environment. The app is one of two Via Opta apps that have been available on the iPhone since August 2014, but a new upgrade adds additional features and brings Via Opta Nav onto a wearable for more convenient navigation.