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Blind People Cross French Mountains


France – Five Blind or partially-sighted hikers crossed a mountain range last week in eastern France. All thanks to the innovative GPS system. Developers now hope that millions of people can now rely on the system.

Unaccompanied by sighted guides, the group successfully trekked armed with their white canes and the experimental smartphone app.  Through fields and forests in the Vosges range near the German border they trekked 80 kilometres in 6 days. 

At regular interviews the GPS warned about the bends in the path and turning points. It was worn in a small pouch, the Navi'Rando – named for "randonner", the French.

Strasbourg University in northeast France developed the system. It was an initiative to improve the life of the visually impaired. 

"Point 15, 11 o'clock, 194 metres," it said in a jerky electronic voice, meaning in just less than 200 metres turn slightly left in the direction of "11 o'clock".

Taking care about the obstacles on path, the French Hiking Federation volunteers planned the journey for the group beforehand.

"The thing that's still difficult is using the cane to locate the exact direction of the trail," said Jean-Claude Heim, who has been blind since birth.

"You really have to concentrate," smiled the 63-year-old former teacher. He is a regular hiker though the Vosges. This was his first trail without a sighted partner. But that didn't stop him enjoying "everything the countryside has to offer: the smells, the sensation of touch, the rain, the sound of the birds."

"It's fantastic to rediscover your sense of freedom," he said as he swept the path with his white cane. Among visually handicapped people, "95 per cent of them have problems leaving home" without assistance, said Nicolas Linder

Crossing Vosges Mountain was the major problem of Navi'Rando's developers.

Even though the system is not the first to be used to help the blind, the Strasbourg system "is the first to use inertial measurement units (IMUs) to refine the GPS signal and regularly recalculate the itinerary,” said the university's sports science department and the team member Laurence Rasseneur.

An electronic device with gyroscope, barometer and accelerometer, IMU helps in navigation to guide aircraft, including the unmanned variety.

"The next step is to make sure this system will work anywhere, even in places where it can't pick up a GPS signal," said Jesus Zegarra, an electronics engineer who has worked on the project for five years.

Once perfected, "you could even imagine blind people being able to make their way through the corridors of an underground station on their own," said Zegarra.

The Strasbourg device is already used in streets.

"With this, I can allow myself to concentrate a bit less — I don't have to count my steps to know when exactly to change direction," said partially-sighted Clement Gass who uses his own Strasbourg for walk.

Navi'Rando was used by a 27-year-old on June 13 to achieve a 26-kilometre running trail along with more than 200 sighted participants for the first time in the world.

Rasseneur sees more than just navigational potential in the system.

"We hope this technology will help change people's perceptions about the handicap and improve employment opportunities for the visually impaired," she said.

The developers hope that a good number of blind and partially sighted people in France and other countries can be benefited out of the project.

At this stage, "the challenge is not technological, it's human," said Rasseneur. "It's a cultural revolution so we need pioneers to show that it's possible."

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