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A smart suitcase and navigation app for blind flyers

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In a world of gadget overload, it’s easy to forget the underlying purpose of technology: To help people. For those living with physical disabilities, technology is often a bridge to a world that would otherwise be more difficult to access.

I was reminded of that when reading research out of Carnegie Mellon University aimed at helping blind passengers navigate airports, spaces that are often congested and difficult to traverse.

“Despite recent efforts to improve accessibility, airport terminals remain challenging for people with visual impairments to navigate independently,” said Chieko Asakawa, IBM Distinguished Service Professor in CMU’s Robotics Institute and an IBM Fellow at IBM Research. Airport personnel physically assist passengers to departure gates, but there are fewer options to get to a bar for a pre-flight drink, say.

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“When you get a five- or six-hour layover and you need to get something to eat or use the restrooms, that is a major hassle,” said one legally blind traveler who participated in a focus group as part of the research. “It would be lovely to be able to get up and move around and do things that you need to do and maybe want to do.”

Two different teams of CMU researchers have developed two technologies that might help: A suitcase that sounds an alarm when a collision is imminent and a navigation app that gives turn-by-turn directions of interior airport spaces. The technologies could one day be combined to help blind users successfully traverse busy spaces like an airport terminal.

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