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Tags Lead the Way for Blind in EU-Funded Pilot

Creatively employing RFID tags previously used to identify livestock, the European Commission's Joint Research Center collaborates with technologists and advocacy group on guided paths.
By Rhea Wessel
Feb 04, 2008Three RFID-enabled walkways in Italy are helping the blind move around in unfamiliar environments. The paths are part of a European Union-funded research project, dubbed SESAMONET (Secure and Safe Mobility Network), designed to improve the lives of visually impaired citizens.

In the city of Laveno Mombello, the path's developers have installed RFID tags in a 2-kilometer stretch that leads straight from the city's railway station to the banks of Lago Maggiore, makes a loop in a park near the lake and also extends across intersections. About 10 people, both blind and sighted, are testing the system using custom-designed canes that serve as interrogators for 125 kHz passive tags encased in a ceramic material and buried in the path. Test users are providing the walkway's designers with feedback to improve the system.

The SESAMONET path in Laveno starts at the railway station and runs 2 km along the lakeshore.

When a blind person passes a tag, his or her cane reader interrogates that tag (the reader's antenna is built into the cane's tip, while its body, power source and Bluetooth transmitter are integrated near the handle). The tag's unique ID is sent, via a Bluetooth transmitter, to the user's PDA, which runs a special software application that determines that individual's location based on the tag ID. The software quickly generates directions (by means of a text-to-speech program) or various audio signals, which are then transmitted to a wireless earpiece worn by the tester.

The user must be trained on how to interpret the audio signals. "A beep sounds for tags read on the right, and a bop sounds for tags read on the left," says Marco Sironi, head of the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC), which developed the prototype. The JRC initially developed the SEASONET platform in collaboration with the RFID Lab at the Sapienza University of Rome.

A tag is buried every 60 centimeters on each side of the trail, with burial points staggered so that if the first tag is buried on the right side, the next one a walker passes will be on the left, 30 centimeters past the first, and so forth. Each tag is buried approximately 4 centimeters beneath the ground, and can be read from up to 20 centimeters away.

As a walker nears the end of the path—or some type of obstacle or hazardous area, such as a stairway or crosswalk—the ID from a nearby tag will trigger an appropriate message to play (such as, "you are approaching a stairway; turn left to continue on the path"). When the software receives the tag ID of a special tag buried near an intersection and deduces, based on the order of the collected tag IDs, that the walker is approaching an intersection and plans to cross it, the PDA transmits a signal, via Wi-Fi, to a receiver inside the traffic light to stop oncoming traffic and allow the person to safely cross.

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