Big Brother Is Watching the Blind


A fancy technological version of the "you're getting warmer, now you're getting colder" game is bringing GPS indoors:

Georgia Institute of Technology's … System for Wearable Audio Navigation, or SWAN, consists of a wearable computer connected to a headband packed with sensors that help sight-impaired users know where they are and how to get where they're going.

Besides a pendant-sized wireless GPS tracker, there are light sensors and thermometers that help distinguish between indoors and outdoors. Cameras gauge how far away objects and obstacles are. A compass establishes direction.

All the data are crunched by a computer in a backpack, which relays high-pitch sonarlike signals that direct users to their destinations.

The system is being developed for the blind, but might eventually be used by firefighters or soldiers faced with low visibility in unfamiliar situations.

Not all the kinks have been worked out of some of the older technology, though:

An 80-year-old German motorist has obediently followed his navigation system all the way into a huge pile of sand, abrubtly bringing his trip to an end.

Current GPS can only track with approximately a ten-foot radius, and can't see the difference between walls and open space indoors. And at the moment, the indoor tracking system has a highly specialized function, but so did GPS at first–now it's in everyone's cell phone. More fodder for discussing the convenience/privacy tradeoffs we're willing to make and the possible upsides of zero privacy.

NEXT: Cartoon Heroes

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  1. There really shouldn’t be any privacy issues if the thing is designed properly – GPSs (as far as I know) can passively receive satellite signals and don’t have to relay information back to anything else…

    Am I right on this…?

  2. As far as I know, Yes.

    But GPS are Department of Defense satellites, they could be dual function for something that could be classified. Two way communication would require a two-way device (transceiver). GPS nav equipment are one way (receiver).

    I’ve seen systems using WiFi and wireless sensors all over the house including in the bed, on the chairs, ect. You can find out exactly where Grandma is standing, siting, or laying on the floor. It also monitors vital signs. This system is accessable via the Internet so there are more privacy concerns. It is more robust and accurate than the GPS verison.

    With privacy concerns, it’s important to understand it not the devices themselves that are the concern, it’s the database those devices are connected.

  3. An 80-year-old German motorist has obediently followed his navigation system all the way into a huge pile of sand, abrubtly bringing his trip to an end.

    not to be too off topic, but does that seem like a weird sentence to anyone else? That use of the perfect, “has obediently followed” rather than just the past is really odd; I wonder if a German wrote the title.

  4. Technically, you do not have GPS in your cellphone. Global Positioning System is a trademarked name for a device that determines it location by tracking signals from overhead satellites.

    Your phone determines its location by tracking signals from cell towers. GPS works everywhere on the planet, while your phone will only find itself where there are cell towers with signals that the phone can hear. Anyone who has lost the signal on their cellphone can understand why a blind person might not want to rely on it.

    The article does invite the question, however: are seeing-eye dogs becoming obsolescent?

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