ASK-IT is a research project developing a system to aid physically disabled persons in the navigation of European cities. Even simple, non-expensive mobile phones can be used to receive personalised routes and information to improve mobility and provide a greater degree of independence from the help of others.
Volunteers across Europe have become involved in testing the new system. Michael, 22, is living in Nuremberg, southeast Germany, and has suffered from spina bifida (latin: “split spine”) since his childhood. Nikos, from Thessaloniki, northern Greece, has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome at the age of 28 and is paralysed in his lower limbs. George, 44, also lives in Thessaloniki and has been disabled since a motorbike accident 11 years ago.
They all know the difficulties of getting around as a physically handicapped person. A challenge for Michael is the historical centre of Nuremberg. Asides from the hilly areas, the cobblestones can be particularly hazardous; if a front wheel of the wheelchair gets stuck, it can easily lead to a fall. In Thessaloniki there is a lot of traffic, which can be quite problematic where the pavements are not wide enough for a wheelchair. The search for a solution to these frequent problems has brought them to the ASK-IT project.
Michael tests the ASK-IT software with a personalised navigator in order to arrive at a museum, situated upon a hill.
The ASK-IT system can be accessed through PCs, PDAs (handheld computers) or mobiled phones. The mobile phone does not even have to be very sophisticated; 80 percent of existing cheap mobile phones can be used.
In Thessaloniki a group of mobility impaired people are using their mobile phones and PDAs to reach a downtown restaurant. Nikos drives with his car using a personalised navigator that show him, rather than the fastest or shortest route, the most accessible route for him, which could include, for example, the nearest parking to his destination. George uses public transport and is told by the software which bus to take, the bus timetable, and other information like how close the public transport system can take him to his destination.
Information requests, like distances, are processed by a powerful server near Nuremberg. It is the heart of the ASK-IT network, from where all software, phone calls, internet, GPS services, video calls, and video conferences are managed.
The interface design is of great importance for easy interaction between humans and computers. For this reason, participants are required for each stage of development in the project. This should ensure that the design is adapted to a wider user population.
Most of the programmers responsible for the maps that Michael uses to find his way to the museum are also disabled people. They know and understand the issues faced by disabled people, not just on the streets, but also when accessing information (in the case of someone who is deaf or colour-blind, for example).
As Nikos parks his car, George gets off the bus a mere 100 metres away. Michael arrives at the museum and although the journey was not always easy he can know that he got there via the best route available.
With the information provided by the ASK-IT network Michael was able to climb the hill without finding himself in front of any steps and without having to relying on anyone else for assistance. The freedom to travel on one's own is something that cannot always be taken for granted.
There are still improvements to be done. As the users become more diverse, there will be a greater need for accuracy. At the moment the user can be localised with an accuracy of normally 2-3 metres. However to guide a blind user an accuracy of at least one metre will be required. It is hoped that with can be achieved through the use of the Galileo satellite system.
A big challenge is finally providing the potential users with the new technology. Many disabled people are elderly, dyslexic or illiterate people and often do not have experience with computers or mobile phones. The user interface must therefore be as simple as possible and run with simple and affordable electronic devices.
But, at least for now, the ASK-IT system fulfilled its purpose for the volunteers, helping them reach their destinations safely and with relative ease.