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Second Sense - Beyond Vision Loss

GPS for the Traveler with Vision Loss: An Overview

December 15, 2020 | Leave a Comment

by Brad Blair

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A large group of pedestrians crossing Michigan Avenue with the Chicago Cultural Center in the background.


Global positioning system (GPS) technology is nearly everywhere. Today, GPS is in nearly every car on the road and every phone carried in a person’s pocket or purse. It’s now taken for granted that if you are planning a route from Chicago to Portland, or even just across town, you will use GPS systems. Whether you look it up on your phone or with your vehicle’s built-in guidance system, you get turn-by-turn navigation all the way there. If you get totally lost, GPS is often the first recourse to getting unlost.  Interestingly, the technology behind this wayfinding change has only been widely available to the public since 2000.

GPS is an orientation and mobility (O&M) tool a traveler might use to supplement existing O&M skills. However, there are limitations of GPS technology that travelers with vision loss should know. While some products are briefly discussed here, this post is not intended as a comparison of GPS products. It is certainly not a training about, or promotion of, any particular product. The Resource section below contains links to videos and further resources that may help you decide on a particular solution, or at least answer questions about what these solutions look like.


A Bit of Tech History

Accessible versions of commonly available technology have to first be developed, and then catch up with the capabilities of technology available to the society at large. Usually, this catchup starts out with a few devices which are novel, cumbersome to use and very expensive. In the arena of GPS and wayfinding, examples of historical devices that fit the profile include the Sendero GPS for the Braille Note (2001) and the Trekker by Humanware.

  • Sendero GPS system for the Braille Note
    The user needed a Braille Note Notetaker from Humanware for starters, an expensive proposition. Add to that, the  BrailleNote needed a software package loaded on the  device, combined with a Bluetooth receiver carried by the user. The add-on package alone cost $1600.
  • The Trekker
    Another example was the Trekker by Humanware, including the less complicated Trekker Breeze (2005). At least with this system, the user only needed to purchase one device. The idea was to keep it in a pocket with an external speaker or an earpiece plugged in. Maps were preloaded on an SD card installed in the unit. The going price was around $800.It should be noted that Humanware is still in the GPS solutions market. Their current answer to the old Trekker system is the Victor Reader Trek, a device combining the functions of the Victor Reader Stream and the Trekker systems for about $800.


There’s an App for That

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, there’s an app for nearly everything. The question we often ask isn’t, “is there an app to help me with that?” We just assume there is. The question is, “Does that run on my device?” GPS apps are certainly no exception and are now standard features out of the box on any smart device you buy. The assistive technology world is catching up fast in this regard. The good news is that the prices are lower. In fact, some solutions cost nothing.

The BlindSquare app (2012) costs $40 and runs on iOS. The newer Lazarillo app, developed around 2016 by a Chilean startup firm and now housed in Tampa, is free and runs on both iOS and Android devices. Download them and play around.


O&M Considerations

There are both pros and cons to be considered from an orientation and mobility perspective. Many accessible GPS apps currently strive to offer the same things. So, depending on which app or solution you are using, you might reasonably use their GPS system to:

  • determine your current location
  • plan a route in advance
  • hear street names and upcoming intersections while walking or riding
  • get point of interest information about places nearby
  • search for places of interest like restaurants or transit stops
  • flag points on a route for your personal use
  • find indoor waypoints where and if available.


Some Limitations Related to Visual Impairment

No GPS system, no matter how good, will ever replace basic O&M travel skills. GPS is a supplement to, not a replacement for, cane-based skills, dog guide use, and low vision scanning and tracking skills. Here are some things no GPS system does:

  • orient you to a room or office (in most cases)
  • tell you when it’s safe to cross a given street
  • help you deal with an icy sidewalk
  • alert you to trip hazards or overhead obstacles
  • help you navigate up and down stairs and escalators
  • provide navigation through a construction zone
  • help you find assistance from the public


Technical Limitations to GPS Systems

You may have the best GPS system currently on the market in your pocket right now. however, it’s not perfect. In fact, it will only get you within a few yards of your destination, so you will need those O&M skills to do the rest. Here are some things that can affect how well your GPS system is going to work:

  • Accuracy of the maps: there’s nothing more annoying than navigating to a coffee shop only to discover that it’s been replaced by a bank.
  • Urban canyon effect: in a congested downtown area with lots of tall buildings, satellite signals may be poor. GPS users, whether rideshare drivers or blind pedestrians like myself, often find GPS accuracy is poor or spotty. This same fall off in accuracy can be caused by other things like the availability of satellites in range, cloud cover and bad weather making satellites inaccessible.
  • Battery Life: GPS apps often drain phone battery rapidly if left running, and accessible GPS apps can do so even more quickly. This means that leaving the app on and constantly checking it will leave you with a dead phone long before you intended.


Summing It Up

Accessible GPS solutions are always improving, and more of them will be available as time passes. No solution is a replacement for sound foundational O&M skills. Used properly, GPS solutions can increase the amount of orientation information available to you.



These videos and other resources may help answer questions about particular systems and demonstrate what they can do. Feel free to explore, and if a free trial of an app is available, download it and see if it works for you.

Brad is Second Sense’s orientation and mobility intern

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