Five hikers, all blind or partially-sighted, crossed a mountain range in eastern France last week thanks to an innovative GPS system that developers hope can help millions of people with vision problems.
Armed only with their white canes and the experimental smartphone app — unaccompanied by sighted guides — the group trekked 80 kilometres in six days through fields and forests in the Vosges range near the German border.
Worn in a small pouch over the stomach, the Navi’Rando — named for “randonner”, the French word for hiking — warned of bends in the path and turning points at regular intervals.
Developed by a team at Strasbourg University in northeast France, it is part of a growing trend tapping the power of technology to improve life for the visually impaired. “Point 15, 11 o’clock, 194 metres,” it said in a jerky electronic voice, meaning in just under 200 metres turn slightly left in the direction of “11 o’clock”.
Volunteers from the French Hiking Federation programmed a precise itinerary for the group beforehand, taking care to note any obstacles on the path.
“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,” said the 63-year-old former teacher, a regular hiker though the Vosges was his first trail without a sighted partner. ”
For Navi’Rando’s developers, the Vosges mountain crossing was a major test. Though not the first researchers to use GPS systems 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 team member Laurence Rasseneur.