Monday, March 20, 2006

Copy of a letter sent to Peter White of In Touch, a Radio 4 show for disabled listeners

Dear Peter and the In Touch team,
My name is Mark Rowan and I'm a student at the University of Birmingham, studying a course in Computer Science.

I am in a team of three students who have taken up the challenge of developing an electronic personal guidance and assistance device for blind and visually-impaired people. We have almost completed the design of our device but we require feedback from those who are most likely to find it useful, and so we decided to get in touch with you.

Briefly the device takes the form of a smart watch and bluetooth headset, both connected wirelessly to a pocket-sized processing unit. We decided to tackle the tasks of guiding a user around an outdoor environment such as an unfamiliar town centre, as well as localised indoor environments such as supermarkets, using a GPS system such as the Galileo system being launched by Europe at the moment.

We designed the device to be controlled using the smart watch, which has a rotating bezel to scroll up and down menu items in a similar way to the iPod click wheel, and buttons to go back and forward in menus. Menu items are spoken through the headset. Shopping lists for a supermarket or travel itineraries for a day in town can be created on the user's PC and downloaded to the central processing unit, although there is no requirement for pre-planning your day as you can use the smart watch to locate specific places or items once you're out in the field too.

The smart watch guides the user using a ring of pressure pins underneath, pressed against the user's skin, corresponding to points of the compass. As the user moves around, the active (pressed) pins also move to guide the user around corners to the destination. Voice prompts can be given through the headset to assist in this too.

GPS overlays giving more information about the user's surrounding area, such as the location of aisles and checkouts in a supermarket, or bus stops and other public locations in the town, are downloaded automatically by the device to give more information to the GPS route finding system. Items in the supermarket can be identified by firstly going to the correct aisle using the directions from the smart watch GPS system, which makes use of an overlay provided by the supermarket containing details of which aisles contain which items. A hand-held barcode scanner provided by the supermarket then gives the user information on the product they are curretnly holding, so they can determine if it's the product they need.

The journal of our development process, including all our thoughts on the device, can be seen at If you could be so kind as to let us know any thoughts or comments you have on our device design, that would be appreciated very much and would help us to refine the design for future users.

Thank you for your time.
Mark Rowan.


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