2013-04-25

A Blind Man Hikes The Appalachian Trail Using Just A Five-Year-Old Phone

If he could do that, imagine what more state-of-the-art technology could lead to.

The average person who sets out to hike the entire 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail, doesn’t finish. But Mike “Bulldog” Hanson did, in 7 months, despite the fact he is blind. As Slate reports:

Using his Nokia N82 cellphone, Hanson downloaded a Loadstone GPS system, which is a free, open-source application specifically designed to facilitate the mobility of blind and visually impaired persons. The Loadstone GPS system allows its users to search for points of interest in an area—such as grocery stores, schools, and office buildings—and store those sites along with labels for future use. With the addition of screen reader technology, the Loadstone program can then provide oral instructions, letting a user know when to turn and when a destination is nearby, all with the help of clock-face directions.

You can see this process in action in video shot by filmmaker Gary “Hitchcock” Steffens, who shadowed Hanson for the hike:

The Nokia N82 came out in 2008, and even in 2010 was not exactly state of the art. Hanson had to acquire map data from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and elsewhere to load the sites that would come standard on Google or even Apple Maps. But even today’s apps for the visually impaired use this same basic integration of sound and location. For example, Ariadne GPS was the first app featured in a short film at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference last year:

In the video, the blind user navigating the streets of Bologna is never seen without the iPhone in his hand. This makes sense, given the need to constantly check in with the app, but also shows this is an area where the next big advance could be in "wearable computing" hardware, like smart watches or Google Glass. Imagine if instead of pulling your phone out to identify your location, you could simply turn your head. And after all, the first public appearance of the Google glasses was at a Dining in the Dark event for the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

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