Fred’s Head from APH, a Blindness Blog

Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Talking Signs: The Future is Now!

Picture this: You are alone, walking in an unfamiliar city. You have only a vague idea where your destination is, but you are able to stride confidently down the street, making the correct turns as you go. You go into a crowded subway station, find the water fountain for a quick drink, and then walk down to the correct level and the correct track for your train. The best part is that you are finding your way without having to ask anyone for directions, because you have been picking up audio orientation clues from the talking signs.

Now this specific scenario won't actually happen for a while, because it will take time and money to get the infrastructure of the signs in place. The technology of the talking sign is already here. Talking Signs, Inc. markets the technology, which was developed at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco with additional work done by MicroComputer Systems of Baton Rouge and by Mitsubishi Precision Company of Japan. It has been installed in a number of locations in San Francisco and has been placed in several schools for the blind and public buildings in the United States, Europe, and Asia. The rest of the world will not be too far behind. Because tactile signs can be difficult to locate, you have to waste time searching for them. A talking sign is more efficient-- instead of you going to it, it comes to you. Getting directional and navigational information from a distance allows you to travel as easily as a person who can read printed signs.

So how does the Talking Signs technology work?

In a nutshell, a sign uses infrared light to transmit information to a hand-held receiver. The receiver unit is a little larger than a cellphone. It has a headphone jack as well as the internal speaker, so you can choose whether to be completely unobtrusive or not as it suits you. It hangs from a neck strap when not in use, leaving your hands free. Only people with a receiver will hear the sign; no one else will know the sign is there. In fact, if you aren't actively scanning for the signs, your receiver remains quiet-- you aren't forced to listen to the signs. The signs broadcast repeating messages to describe what they are: "water fountain", "stairs to train platform." The strength and clarity of the signal tell you direction and distance.

Where would the signs be installed?

The best use of the signs indoors is to identify permanent objects and destinations. A hotel lobby might have signs for the front desk, elevators, restrooms, and exits. Outdoors the signs can be used to identify intersections: street name, block number, and cross street. They also can be hooked in with the traffic lights so that they broadcast a "walk" or a "don't walk"-- much quieter than chirps and cuckoos. They also are being placed on busses to identify the bus and its route.

Talking Signs, Inc.
812 North Boulevard
Baton Rouge, LA 70802
Toll Free: 800-339-0117
Fax: 255-344-2811

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