Access all areas

A project designed to allow the disabled better access to local buildings will involve the first practical application of ambient intelligence technology in the UK, says Niall Firth.

For someone in a wheelchair or with any serious disability, the simplest excursion often involves military-style planning before they leave the house. This can limit their access to local information and services, preventing them from taking an active role in their communities and often leaving them feeling isolated.

But now a UK-based research project called MAPPED (Mobilisation and Accessibility Planning for People with Disabilities) is aiming to develop an integrated system to allow the disabled to find out more about access to buildings in their area.

The researchers claim the project will also be the UK’s first real example of ambient intelligence technology being put into practice.

In September 2004, the third and final part of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into force, meaning all services and businesses must now do everything in their power and make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to allow disabled people to live like everybody else.

Affecting everything from ramps to allow access to buildings to the re-sizing of text on posters for the visually impaired, the DDA was the result of many years’ campaigning by disability organisations.

MAPPED aims to provide users with a multi-modal route planner, allowing them to download up-to-the minute advice on accessibility and disability- specific route information to their mobile phone or PDA. Technology developed in the project will be trialled by Hampshire County Council, making it the first local authority to use ambient intelligence as a practical solution to the needs of the disabled.

The scheme is part of a series of similar projects across Europe under the ‘E-Inclusion’ umbrella, which aims to use advanced technology to support the disabled and enable them to be more integrated into their local environments. It is being rolled out across seven sites in Europe, led by the Hellenic Institute for Transport in Greece.

The teams are all working in conjunction with the University of Newcastle’s School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, where researchers are developing the underlying ambient intelligent system. This is being developed as part of the EU-funded ASK-IT (Ambient Intelligent System of Agents for Knowledge-Based and Integrated Services for Mobility Impaired Users) project. It is a system designed to allow the disabled access to the internet and other disability-specific IT systems.

Phil Blyth, professor of intelligent transport systems at Newcastle, said: ‘We are hoping ASK-IT will be the beginning of the use of ambient intelligence in towns across the country. It’s a good example of how this kind of technology can really help people who need extra assistance.

 The technology will be tested next spring in Newcastle’s Quayside area, which has undergone a facelift in recent years. The team will create a virtual ‘intelligent corridor’ which will span both the Newcastle and the Gateshead sides of the river. Once inside, the user’s position will be identified and relevant location and user-specific information will be received on their PDA or mobile phone.

‘Wherever you are inside an ambient intelligent system, it will know your location and respond appropriately,’ said Blyth.

Data is collected and filed by the system for use by the disabled user, covering content including transport, tourism and leisure, work, business and education.

The system can adapt itself according to the user’s preferences, habits and the context in which it is being used, said Simon Edwards,senior research associate at the University of Newcastle.

‘The system uses intelligent agents which are autonomous pieces of software that can learn from the user and present them with information they didn’t even know they needed.’

The technology will allow access to portals such as ‘e-Commerce’ and ‘e-Government’ as well as up-to-theminute information such as bus timetables, pavement conditions and the gradients of slopes.

The user’s location will be determined using GPS and relayed to the handheld PDA which will then use virtual ‘web-signs’ — radio tags attached to items such as shop doorways — in the surrounding area to download relevant information.

In Spain, Siemens is working with the ASK-IT system to integrate a range of services similar to the MAPPED project. The company is concentrating on making the service seamless and capable of adapting to various devices.

The most immediate contact the user will have with the system will be in the fabric of their own clothes, where intelligent software and sensors will monitor their heart rate, blood pressure and other physical data. This is known as the ‘body area network’.

The ‘personal area network’ will incorporate the area surrounding the user and be accessed via PDA or mobile phone. The system will be able to automatically switch between devices and networks by sensing where the user is.

Nikos Spanoudakis, computer and informatics engineer at Singular Software, which is developing the software for the project, said: ‘The users of the system will have the opportunity to modify their ambient area through the choices they make. Over time they will have to make fewer choices as the ambient intelligent software will have learned what they want.’

The system will also extend to the user’s home where personal choices in things such as lighting and heating will be learned and stored by the embedded software.

Disabled people are working with the team to help decide which services are most needed. Work on the software will begin this summer.

For some time, the concept of ambient intelligent technology has been a computer scientist’s pipe dream, divorced from realistic applications and without the technology behind it to become a practical solution.

But MAPPED will put the technology to practical use, and the University of Newcastle’s Blyth claimed the project is just the start of the use of ambient intelligence in the UK.

‘We are becoming more wired — in a wire-free way — than ever’, he said. ‘Before long, ambient technology will be available everywhere and will provide up-to-the-minute information for tourists as well as the elderly and disabled. People will be able to wirelessly load local information from a main intelligent hub on to their mobiles or PDAs .’ ‘Hopefully, this project will give the whole thing a kick-start.’