Help for the blind

A new Bluetooth system could help blind people discover more about points of interest along their path as they pass them.


The so-called Talking Points system comprises a mobile receiver that can pick up Bluetooth signals transmitted from beacons located at local points of interest and then speak or display the information received directly to the user.


Developed at the University of Michigan, the present prototype receiver is about the size of a paperback book, although its designers claim that, in the future, a cell phone could be used.


The Bluetooth beacons, or tags, would be located at points where owners wish to give information to Talking Points users. Cities or towns, for example, could tag information centres, parks or other buildings.


A website would allow Talking Points beacon owners to program their tags. They could update their messages regularly. Once a beacon is added, other community members could add their comments about the point of interest. Pedestrians using the system could then choose to get those comments.


‘Talking Points can be viewed as a first step in the direction of an audio virtual reality designed for people with blindness and very useful to the sighted community as well,’  said James Knox, adaptive technology co-ordinator for the university’s Information Technology Central Services and one of the system’s developers.


For the sighted community, the system could give passers-by a peek at the specials or sales inside a business. It could offer on-the-go access to customer reviews. For blind pedestrians, it could do the same, but it would also fill those gaps in knowledge. Talking Points could help visually impaired people find public restrooms, police stations, public transportation and restaurants with Braille menus, for example.


Similar systems exist, but Talking Points is the first known to use Bluetooth, cater to both the sighted and the visually impaired, allow people to operate it entirely with voice commands and incorporate community-generated content through a website.


Knox and collaborators in the university’s School of Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science created an early version of Talking Points years ago.


A group of master’s students and undergraduates has now given the project new energy. They shrunk the receiver and switched the transmitting technology from RFID to the more popular Bluetooth. They are also exploring other technologies such as GPS.