- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Blind high school students visiting Catholic University yesterday tested a new technology to help them navigate between campus buildings and the surrounding area.

The shoulder-carried personal computers receive radio signals from satellites to chart the location of users and direct them to their destination with recorded voice commands.

The BrailleNote GPS device is like a combination of a personal digital assistant, Mapquest software and a mechanical voice.

“This is so cool,” said 15-year-old Mario Bonds, a blind student from Suitland High School, who carried one of the units over his shoulder yesterday while he tapped a cane along the sidewalk.

From a starting point in front of the university’s Pryzbyla Center, he led a group of seven blind high school students toward the nearest Pizza Hut.

“Ahead and left, 579 feet,” the mechanical voice said.

Seconds later, as the group veered left on the sidewalk, the voice said, “Ahead, 508 feet.”

The system uses satellites to triangulate the carrier’s position, much like a ship finding its location at sea.

Blind people can encode “points of interest,” such as dormitories, classrooms, local restaurants or any other location, into the computer’s database. Afterward, they can punch keys on the unit’s keyboard to direct themselves to a specific point of interest.

After a short walk, Mario said he hoped to get one of the units for himself.

“You won’t need to ask directions from anyone,” he said.

Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind arranged the demonstration for news reporters yesterday in advance of the technology’s rollout next month. It was developed and manufactured by Pulse Data HumanWare, a Concord, Calif., company.

The $1,000 global positioning system is an attachment to the BrailleNote keypads that are transforming the visually impaired community’s ability to work and study.

The $5,800 BrailleNote, which Pulse Data HumanWare introduced three years ago, is essentially a personal computer for the blind. Using nine keys, they can receive e-mail, record data, read letters and access the Internet. Mechanical voices on the computers read the information out loud or display it with upraised Braille lettering.

The global positioning system upgrades the computers to give them navigation abilities.

“We want them to see that college really is attainable,” said Kathryn Courbe, spokeswoman for Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, a Washington-based public service organization for the visually impaired.

Pulse Data HumanWare is working with state agencies and social service organizations, like Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, to make the equipment available to the visually impaired through grants or other financial assistance. The company also has negotiated with the Virginia School for the Blind.

The system uses the same 24 satellites the Defense Department uses for navigation of ships and airplanes. It is accurate within 20 feet, anywhere in the world.

Interior spaces and heavy cloud cover can cause problems for the system. It must have clear signals from at least three satellites to operate properly.

“The technology is not new,” said Richard Krafsig, Mid-Atlantic regional manager for Pulse Data HumanWare. “We just put a few twists in it.”

He told the high school students, at Catholic University yesterday for orientation, how to use the equipment.

He pushed a few buttons to set up the voice commands.

“Switching to GPS mode,” the mechanical voice said.

Mr. Krafsig also warned about the limitations of the technology.

“It never should supersede your training with a cane or a dog,” he said. “It doesn’t let you know what’s ahead or that there’s a car coming.”

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