Electronic Navigation System for Visually Impaired at MBTA Station to be Installed by Engineer Aura Ganz

AMHERST, Mass. – Aura Ganz, an engineer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has designed an electronic navigation system for the visually impaired that will be installed in a downtown Boston subway station and open to the public in 2016. Funded with a two-year, $238,321 grant from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), a prototype of the system will be set up in the Arlington Station,located at the southwest corner of the Boston Public Garden at the corner of Arlington and Boylston streets.

Called PERCEPT, Ganz’s system is a directory for the blind and visually impaired that provides verbal directions, electronic signs and a virtual information booth for moving around the subway station.

Ganz is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMass Amherst. She says PERCEPT can be used by any visually impaired individual with a smartphone that has a special application loaded with pre-set navigation instructions and near field communication (NFC) software that allows the phone to communicate with electronic tags deployed throughout the station.

Ganz says, “Independent navigation through unfamiliar indoor spaces is beset with barriers for the visually impaired. A task that is trivial and spontaneous for the visioned population has to be planned and coordinated with other individuals for the visually impaired.”

Independent sight-impaired individuals typically receive training from an orientation and mobility instructor in order to accommodate themselves to buildings they need to visit regularly.  Subway stations are much more complex spaces, Ganz says. Unlike an office building, a subway station layout can change depending on time of day. For example, gates open at rush hour are closed at other times. Escalators move up sometimes and down at others.

Inside the station, signs are often placed out of sight from those with low-functioning vision. The high level of ambient noise in the underground atmosphere also makes it harder for the visually impaired to use their sense of hearing to detect openings, follow the flow of traffic and generally navigate through the space. Both the MBTA and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind say that no deployed technological solutions exist that provide accurate and affordable navigation instructions in subway systems.

Ganz plans to change that. She says, “We will develop a prototype of an accurate and affordable navigation system for the visually impaired in subway stations.”

The proposed system is innovative because it incorporates several new ideas. First, it features “interactive spaces,” which relate to users in real time and accounts for their changing location throughout the station. Next, PERCEPT is operated by a gesture-based user interface on the smartphone that enables visually impaired users to interact with the space in the station. Finally, the system will offer detailed navigation instructions with safe navigation fundamentals.

When PERCEPT is in place at Arlington Station, NFC tags will be deployed at specific landmarks determined by an orientation and mobility instructor. Using the smartphone, a person will choose the destination and the application will provide navigation instructions, either when the smartphone touches the NFC tag or when you swipe its screen for Next instructions.

When the phone scans the tag, the application will say: “Your current starting station is Arlington main entrance, please proceed down the stairs along the right-side wall. When you get to the bottom of the stairs, scan the card on the wall to your immediate right, or swipe Next.” The process is repeated until you arrive at your destination.

Before being put into use, the new system will be tested by 10 visually impaired subjects recruited by Meg Robertson, certified orientation and mobility specialist from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind in Boston.

The PERCEPT system was developed with the cooperation of the Orientation and Mobility Department of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind using approximately $400,000 in funding from the National Institutes of Health/National Eye Institute.