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Guide for the Visually Impaired

Students at the University of Rochester have developed an RFID system that can direct the visually impaired.
By Bob Violino
Jan 01, 2004—It started as a simple assignment for students at the University of Rochester’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences: Design a system that could provide orientation assistance for people with visual impairments. The RFID-driven
Jack Mottley
solution they came up with could change the way the blind interact with the world.

The students looked at a variety of technologies, including the Global Positioning System. “GPS doesn’t work indoors and isn’t precise enough to locate a doorway,” says Jack Mottley, the associate professor who gave the assignment to his students back in 2001. “We wanted something that could locate a door or a junction accurately.”

When the engineering whizzes began exploring RFID, they quickly saw the light. The system the five students came up with was simple: Attach RFID tags to doorways, campus signs and other key points, and develop a device that combines an RFID reader with a CD player (an MP3 player would also work).

The system could be ideal for helping the visually impaired get around campus or find a department within a building. When a user of the device approaches a tag, the reader scans it and plays a track on the CD associated with that tag. For instance, if a student was looking for the humanities department, a tag at the entrance of the building might prompt the CD player to play a track that says: “You are entering Smith Hall. Humanities is straight down the corridor.”

One shortcoming of the system—which also could be used in public buildings, hospitals and government agencies—is that each tag has to be associated individually with a location and a track on the CD. But Mottley envisions a support industry growing up to create CDs or MPEG files. “Consulting firms might say to a medical center, ‘For a certain fee, we’ll develop CDs that will help a visually impaired person get from the reception area to each department,’” he says.

Four of the five students who worked on the project have gone on to graduate school. The other student has joined the military and is serving in Iraq. But Mottley has applied for a patent on their behalf. The next step is to conduct trials to see how well visually impaired people respond to the system. If it works and Mottley is able to line up a manufacturer to produce it, he and his students may well be seen as true visionaries.
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