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  • Writer's pictureJ. David Grossman

GPS Innovation Unlocking Independence for Americans With Visual Impairments

By: J. David Grossman, Executive Director, GPS Innovation Alliance

For generations, individuals who are blind or visually impaired have turned to guide dogs as a tool for navigating life’s obstacles. These highly trained animals offer many unique benefits, including navigational guidance and support, but they are limited in their ability to identify specific streets or provide the equivalent of turn-by-turn navigation. This is where a wide range of technologies, including the Global Positioning System, or GPS, has changed the game for those who are blind or visually impaired.

As the executive director of the GPS Innovation Alliance (GPSIA), an organization dedicated to protecting, promoting and enhancing the use of GPS, we understand why it is so critical for individuals who are blind or visually impaired to have access to a GPS signal that is continuously available, accurate, reliable and resilient. Precise location information, using GPS and voice guidance, means knowing whether to take a left at the end of the street or whether to turn around because you went too far.

Since the early 2000s, a vibrant marketplace of GPS-enabled hardware and software solutions has emerged to enhance the independence of those with visual impairments. Today, thanks to the growth of smartphones, the availability of free or low-cost applications for those with visuals impairments has never been greater.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Perkins School for the Blind, just outside of Boston. During this inspiring visit, I learned about BlindWays, a mobile app that helps those who are blind find their bus stop. Using GPS, crowd-sourced “reliable navigational clues” such as a fire hydrant or mailbox, and Bluetooth beacons, BlindWays helps guide a visually impaired traveler to a bus stop. Since that time, I’ve come across other popular mobile applications including Sendero Group’s “Seeing Eye GPS”; “Nearby Explorer” from the American Printing House for the Blind and MIPsoft’s “BlindSquare.”

Another exciting innovation comes from Aira, a California-based startup with a product that combines video-equipped smart glasses, GPS and other data points to become a “visual interpreter for the blind.” In testimony before the House Energy & Commerce Committee earlier this year, Aira’s Director of Public Policy and Strategic Alliances Paul Schroeder described the company’s mission as “provid[ing] people who are blind or low vision with instant access to visual and environmental information, whenever and wherever users request it.” Named by PC Magazine as the "Best New Technology" at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it is clear that Aira is a significant development for those with visual impairments.

There is also much excitement about driverless vehicles and the transformative impact they can have on individuals who cannot drive themselves, including those with visual impairments. GPS, when combined with other technologies, can enable submeter accuracy, where an autonomous vehicle knows not just what lane it’s in, but where in the lane it’s located.

So, what does the future hold when it comes to GPS innovation for people who are visually impaired? Continued advancements in the GPS marketplace, both through the infrastructure provided by government, as well as from private sector investment, will only expand these breathtaking applications. Devices utilizing multiple GPS signals or other Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) will deliver greater accuracy, increased integrity and improved performance in challenging environments, such as urban areas.

For consumers who are blind, improved real-time positioning tools are just one of the many exciting technologies on the horizon. Innovators in this space will help tackle some of the greatest systemic barriers to independence that have existed for centuries. This is why groups like the American Council of the Blind have committed themselves to working with Congress, regulators and industry on digital infrastructure reform, recognizing the transformative impact this space will have on improving independence.

GPSIA is committed to supporting the public policies necessary to make this a reality, including advocating for continued funding to maintain existing satellite infrastructure while advancing the deployment of the next generation of satellites known as GPS III; ensuring unhindered reception of GPS signals; and advancing next generation 5G wireless networks – which, together with GPS, will enable low-latency applications like driverless vehicles and augmented reality.

This summer marked the 28th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When it was enacted, GPS was still very much in its infancy. Today, with 31 active satellites in the constellation and more on the way, GPS is making a critical difference in the lives of those with visual impairments. GPSIA will be there to ensure this story continues for generations to come.



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