Navigating around in today’s world is as simple as ordering a cup of coffee. Between the various modes of transportation and myriad geolocating apps out there, getting from point A to point B is generally quite straightforward. For the visually impaired, however, the challenges are very real and it can be difficult to navigate alone without any assistance. Today, on World Sight Day, the Google Maps team announced the launch of an additional feature that gives a more detailed voice guidance to those who can’t rely on their vision.
The initiative was spearheaded by Wakana Sugiyama, a Tokyo-based business analyst at Google who is legally blind and uses a walking cane to move around. Going from her home to her office is a route she is comfortable taking as she is familiar with it – but venturing some place new and unfamiliar can be an intimidating experience.
“Some of my most pressing concerns include knowing if I’m going the right way or if a street is safe to cross,” she said. “I also frequently wonder if I missed a turn, if I’m on the correct side of the street at the right time, and of course, whether I’ve reached my destination, or if I’ve already passed it.”
Sugiyama is among the 36 million people who are blind worldwide — a figure that rises to 253 million people when factoring in the visually impaired. Conditions include glaucoma, retinal degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, among others.
Eye Spy A Solution
The Japanese Googler has spent the past year working with the Google Maps team to develop a more helpful navigation solution for the visually impaired.
Starting today, individuals in Japan and the U.S. will be able to activate a new feature in Google Maps on both Android and iOS to receive more verbal updates on walking trips. The app will provide periodic announcements, alerts, warnings and provide a compass heading as well.
To turn the feature on, users can go to the Google Maps settings and select “Navigation.” At the bottom of the list will be the option to enable “Detailed voice guidance,” beneath the “Walking options” heading.
Apple is reportedly also working on making its Maps app more accessible for visually impaired users. The Cupertino-based giant has applied for a patent for “touch-based exploration of maps for screen reader users.” Whether this will come to fruition or not is unclear at this stage.
Anyone Can Use It
While Google Map’s new feature aims to assist the visually impaired, it can also help someone who wants a more screen-free experience on their walking trip, whether it’s a parent pushing a stroller or a traveller dragging suitcases.
“This may not sound extraordinary to those with sight, but for people who are blind or have low vision, this can help us explore new and unfamiliar places,” Sugiyama wrote in a blog post.
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“The idea doesn’t have to be an extraordinary VR experience to be groundbreaking,” said Rebecca Moore, a product director at Google Maps. “The solution can be simple.”
This is what Sugiyama was trying to convey during Google’s Geo for Everyone hackathon, which took place in July 2018 simultaneously across a variety of Google offices — from New York City and Mountain View to Zurich and Tokyo. While some participants pitched high-tech solutions, the young woman kept it simple: a more detailed voice guidance. This feature is now fully integrated into the Google Maps app and didn’t require any additional satellite data.
Re-Tuning The Digital Map
“Detailed voice guidance directions are based on the same digital map of the world as our other directions, but we’ve re-tuned them to be optimized for users with vision impairment,” said Bill Steinmetz, a software engineer at Google Maps.
He adds that because the compass sensors on smartphones aren’t always very accurate, the team decided not to use them for detailed voice guidance – basing the vocal updates on the heading of the user’s motion instead.
“It’s actually beneficial as users don’t need to have their phone oriented in a certain way for the assistive voice guidance to work,” said Moore. So the users can have their phones in their pockets or their bags and just rely on audio feedback via their headphones.
While this feature is only available in Japan and the U.S. at this time, support for additional languages and countries are on the way, according to the Google Maps team.
Feels like we’re going in the right direction.