Alternative Currents

GPS for the Blind

Before leaving her apartment, Carmen Fernandez, a blind woman living in Madrid, Spain, used to carefully memorize her route–and stick to it–to keep from getting lost. But a new GPS device that Fernandez is testing has freed her from such a rigid routine. Using the gadget’s Braille keypad, she punches in her destination, and as she walks, the handheld product calls out directions to her. “Now I can walk home by any route, and I always know where I am,” Fernandez says. “I’ve learned so much about my own neighborhood.”

While promising, the technology still needs some work. GPS data can be inaccurate in cities where tall buildings temporarily block satellite signals–and it’s in cities that blind people especially need directional help. To fill these gaps, researchers are trying to incorporate a cellular modem to receive additional
GPS data via the Internet. While the current technology cannot guarantee total accuracy, it already represents a new level of freedom for the visually impaired. “Soon I’ll be giving directions to the taxi driver,” says Fernandez.