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New Technology Helps Visually Impaired Students Navigate Penn State

by on July 17, 2015 10:29 AM

Walking around Penn State University Park is not the easiest thing to do for any student. There are hundreds of people around you at any time, and the sheer number of buildings make it easy for anyone to get lost.

Now try navigating through this crazy maze when you’re visually impaired.

Madeline Garber, a recent graduate from Lower Merion High School, will be attending Muhlenberg College in the fall, but was on campus at Universty Park on Thursday afternoon to test out two new pieces of technology to benefit the visually impaired.

As Garber gets ready for college, she says that she is not concerned about finding her way around campus. She has friends who will help her if she gets disoriented, but doesn't want to rely on others for her independence.

That's where these two new pieces of innovate tech come into play: the iBeacon and Blind Square.

Garber was on campus for the The Summer Academy for Students who are blind or visually impaired, which was was back for the second year to test out this new technology in State College.

“There are a lot of partnerships that go into making this program successful,” says Shelly Faust-Jones, coordinator of the Summer Academy Program. “The program itself has a wide variety of subjects to offer to the students.”

The academy teamed up with Penn State’s College of Education and the College of Health and Human Development to make this test happen.

 “We’re using two different technologies today built for iOS devices,” says Doug Williams, educational consultant with PaTTAN, Department of Special Education Consulting Agency. “Blind Square is the GPS app that is unique to other GPS because it not only gives you information of where you are and where you’re going but it actually tells you environmental information.”

The Blind Square is specifically designed to work outdoors, but with other GPS’s you have to be outside.

The test had Garber walk from Atherton Hall to Pollock Dining Commons.

During the walk to the Pollock Commons, Blind Square would tell Garber about the buildings she’s near, what direction she has to go, how far she has left till her destination and other physical surroundings.

“The headphones she is wearing are specially designed so that she can hear the instructions from the iOS device and the noise surrounding her,” says Williams. “That’s big because for someone like Maddie, hearing the sounds around you is very important.”

As Garber weaved her way through a busy crowd with the help of Blind Square, she successfully made it to the Pollock Dinning Commons where the iBeacon kicked in.

“We have set up a dozen iBeacons in the Pollock Commons,” says Justin Laffey, assistant tech specialist with PaTTAN. “The beacons set up throughout the commons will help provide a more detailed navigation path for Maddie.”

For example, as Garber approached the double doors at the entrance, the beacon told Garber to go through the double doors and follow the stairs to your left.

The test was very successful as first time user Garber was able to navigate both outdoors and indoors with no problem.

“I love how much detail and it can give you,” says Garber. “It is definitely very useful and I feel like I can be more independent when I’m using it.”


Abhar Shah is an intern with A senior broadcast journalism major at Penn State University Shah is part of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. Abhar is also involved with THON and the Penn State Cricket team.
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