Blind Navigation, Arkenstone, & some friends are in the news!

Date: Mon Jul 24 1995 - 18:23:05 PDT

Hi there everyone,

Fred here again with another article from the San Jose Mercury News. You
will recognize a few of the people interviewed, I trust.

Date: 95-07-24 07:28:36 EDT
From: (NewsHound)

Helping the blind to navigate New technology offers a road map to greater
By Eric Lai

Mercury News Staff Writer

IKE MAY is walking in the heart of the high-tech industrial neighborhood
north of Highway 101 in Sunnyvale, a large black bag holding a notebook
computer slung over his shoulder, a small earphone in his ear. Suddenly, he
jerks his Seeing Eye dog Joshua to a stop.

``Aha,'' he said, smiling. ``This road up ahead is Caribbean Drive.''

May, who has been blind since birth, has not allowed his handicap to prevent
him from engaging in his favorite hobby, downhill skiing. But independent
travel, especially in the suburban Silicon Valley landscape where pedestrians
are few, is difficult to impossible for May.

However, now a pair of new computer-based navigation tools introduced by a
Sunnyvale corporation aims to change that. Scheduled to be released next
month, Atlas Speaks is a talking map of Sunnyvale.

Inside May's bag is a computer-based orientation system called Strider. Using
signals beamed from Global Positioning System satellites, Strider combines
the features of a map and compass into one talking package.

Advocates for the blind hail Arkenstone's products as the latest examples of
technology attempting to liberate the blind person. ``They are splendid
products with considerable potential,'' said Marc Maurer, president of the
National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, Md.

``It's the first time that I as a blind person have been able to read a
map,'' says Rob Turner, a technology specialist at Rose Resnick's Lighthouse
for the Blind, a social service agency in San Francisco.


The Strider package -- including the Atlas Speaks software (Atlas Speaks will
be sold separately for $500 starting in August), a portable GPS receiver,
keypad, earphone and carrying case, but not the required notebook computer --
is expected to cost between $1,500 and $2,500 when it is released in early

Arkenstone officials hope that by that time, the military will stop
distorting the GPS signals beamed down to commercial customers from its 24
satellites. The military fuzzes the GPS signal -- accuracy is no better than
100 meters -- because it fears that terrorists or other enemies could use GPS
to spot U.S. targets. It's capable of more -- the satellites were used during
the Gulf War to pinpoint enemy positions.

Automotive potential

But GPS' increasing commercial popularity -- sales of GPS receivers are
estimated at $2 billion in 1995 -- may persuade the military to give the
public full access. One much-hyped use of GPS is the eventual promise of
computer-controlled cars that will be able to drive themselves. Delco
Electronics introduced a basic car navigation system this April that can tell
you in which direction your destination is -- and the distance to it.

The Strider now can locate the user within 10 meters using an extra GPS
receiver. But that, says Bill Schwegler, Arkenstone's head of product
development, leads to yet another problem: figuring out how to plug all three
components -- speech synthesizer and two GPS receivers -- into the back of
the computer. Schwegler says they are also attempting to pare down Strider's
overall bulkiness.


The blind, says Arkenstone's President Jim Fruchterman, face two major
difficulties: reading and traveling.

With a cane and Seeing Eye dog, the blind usually can navigate their
immediate neighborhood well enough to perform their daily tasks. But longer
trips involving public transportation, for instance, pose more of a

Braille maps are heavy

Simply lugging a Braille map -- usually 10 times bulkier than normal maps
because the words take up so much space -- is a chore.

Those totally blind since birth, says May, are also less adept at using maps
because of their different comprehension of spatial relationships. ``North,
south, east, west makes no sense to me,'' May said. Popping his watch face
open to demonstrate how he tells time, May says that most blind people give
directions using hours on a clock.

By necessity, the blind are adept at transforming a sequential set of spoken
directions into a path they can understand. However, a sighted person giving
directions to a blind person will often omit important points and landmarks.
``People don't know how to describe how to get to a bus stop,'' sighed May.

Blind PC users can plan a complete trip out by themselves using Atlas Speaks,
typing these directions down with a Braille typewriter or dumping them to an
automatic note-taking device such as Braille 'N Speak.

Strider gives blind users constant location updates through a speaker or
small ear plug. ``Approaching a four-way intersection,'' intones the speech
synthesizer in a spare, emotion-less computer voice. ``North on Borregas

May, who is also Arkenstone's vice president of sales, predicts that using
Atlas Speaks or Strider, ``a lot of blind people who wouldn't otherwise go
out alone'' will be able to travel to previously foreboding destinations.


The blind community's enthusiasm for Strider and Atlas Speaks follows a
history of well-intentioned but often poorly designed inventions. Most of
these products were aimed at increasing a blind person's mobility. Dave
Andrews, director of the International Braille and Technology Center for the
Blind in Baltimore, remembers one would-be inventor's proposal for a cane
that could detect water. ``I asked him why, and he said `So blind people
don't get their shoes wet,' '' Andrews said.

Other canes, with built-in lasers and radar guns that beeped when pointed
toward an obstruction, cost more than $1,000 and honked so incessantly that
the users, who depend heavily on auditory information, couldn't hear above
the racket.

Perhaps the most ill-conceived recent invention was a pair of ``sonic
glasses'' worn with a matching helmet that prevented all hearing. ``We used
to joke about that one,'' said Turner, who is himself blind.

The personal computer, though, has served as the basis for a whole slew of
successful reading aids for the blind, including Arkenstone's own automatic
reading machine software. Equipped with a scanner, optical character
recognition software and a voice synthesizer, the computer, Fruchterman said,
allows a blind user ``to do almost any information-based job.''

Technological problems

Some of the more recent advances in PC technology haven't benefited the
blind. Speech synthesizers translate text from a standardized form, called
ASCII, into spoken word. While this was relatively straightforward in
computers running DOS systems, speech synthesizers encounter major
difficulties translating Windows or Macintosh on-screen ``text'' -- which are
really graphical representations of ASCII text -- into speech.

``The graphic user interface is not suited for the blind user,'' May said.

Microsoft officials reassured Andrews at the Technology Center for the Blind
that Windows 95 will include ``hooks'' so that software developers for the
blind can access ASCII text data more easily.


Andrews is one skeptic who doesn't believe that either Strider or Atlas
Speaks will affect the majority of the 900,000 legally blind people in
America, of whom 20 percent are totally blind. Neither Atlas Speaks nor
Strider, he argues, address the fundamental problem with the blind: a job.

Strider, he predicts, will prove too expensive for most blind people.

Arkenstone officials contend that Atlas Speaks, because of its lower cost,
will outsell Strider 5-to-1. And they also admit that their products are
merely orientation aids, not all-encompassing mobility tools.

May says users will use Atlas Speaks to plan their trips and consult Strider
only sparingly when they're in the field to ensure they're still on the right

``It doesn't replace a cane or a Seeing Eye dog,' he said.

Published 7/24/95 in the San Jose Mercury News.

This material is copyrighted and may not be republished without permission of
the originating newspaper or wire service.


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