Grad students to develop GPS project for visually impaired

A GPS-based project would help blind students travel easily around college campuses.

At 356 acres, California State University, Northridge (CSUN) can seem like a mini city where one can easily get lost without a map. If you are blind or visually impaired, finding your way about the campus and its more than 100 buildings can be daunting without a guide.

Graduate students Robert Sweetman and Trudy Bowden-Callahan, both earning master’s degrees in assistive technology, are hoping to change that. The pair received a $20,000 grant from the Ethel Louise Armstrong Foundation to develop a global positioning program that would not only help blind and visually impaired students navigate the CSUN campus, but provide them with information about what’s inside the buildings they are passing, as well as what lies ahead.

Jennifer Kalfsbeek-Goetz, a senior director in CSUN’s Tseng College and a faculty member in the assistive technology program, calls Sweetman and Bowden-Callahan’s project “awesome.”

“To put it simply, students who have low vision or are blind will have the opportunity to see the campus better,” Kalfsbeek-Goetz said. “For those of us who can see, we take for granted what is around us. For example, the Matador Bookstore.”

She said a quick walk through the building would reveal that it contains a copy center and sells postage as well as gifts in addition to books. It also has a convenience store. There is a seating area with a fast food court and monitors that display announcements. There are even some classrooms off to the side.

“Robert and Trudy are working on a way to help someone who is sight-limited or blind to truly understand where they are on campus, and sort of mentally visualize the function each building and all that is available at each site,” Kalfsbeek-Goetz said. “They are truly making this campus come alive and be seen in a way that many of us who are sighted take for granted.”

Sweetman, who is blind, and Bowden-Callahan have spent the past several months marking more than a hundred navigation points of interest on the Cal State Northridge campus. They then entered the information into Sendero GPS, a software program developed by the Sendero Group. The Sendero GPS program runs on several note-taking devices commonly used by the blind and visually impaired. Attaching a small GPS receiver to the note-taker allows the program to inform its user about where he or she is and what is in the surrounding area.

Sweetman said the program would provide the location of the various entrances to buildings, including often overlooked side entrances, as well as shortcuts and alternate routes across campus.

“I’ve actually learned a couple new routes—shortcuts—as the result of working on this project,” he said.

Sweetman actually used one of the first, very primitive GPS devices developed about a decade ago to help the blind navigate through a community.

“It was the size of a backpack and weighed about 15 pounds, and the information it provided was very basic. The map on the laptop version have very few commercial points of interest, and the GPS receivers were not nearly as accurate as the receivers we have today,” he said. “The Points of Interest that we’re developing for the campus is able to run on a small note-taker that can be carried easily and will provide detailed information so that you truly will know where you are and what’s around you on the CSUN campus.”

Bowden-Callahan envisions that someday the program would be application-accessible on individual cell phones.

“It would also be great if we could expand it to other university campuses and outside the borders of our campus,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be great if someone could continue walking west from the campus and learn that the buildings they were passing contained apartments, restaurants and other businesses they didn’t know about? They could truly explore their community the way people who don’t have visual issues can.”

“There’s so much going on with assistive technology. The potential is limitless,” Sweetman said.

Cal State Northridge launched its Master of Science in Assistive Technology Studies and Human Services, believed to be the first such degree program in the country, last year to meet a growing demand for trained professionals in the field of assistive technology.

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