Simon Wheatcroft, a blind runner, used wearable technology that enabled him to run about 16 miles of Sunday’s New York City Marathon with minimal human assistance. As Simon Wheatcroft walked onto the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to start the New York City Marathon, he could sense other runners moving around him but could see them only as one smudged shape.
“I love a long shot,” said Wheatcroft, a motivational speaker who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science. “It’s nice to really push against the limits of possibility.”
At the blast of a cannon, he set off on Sunday with more than 60 visually impaired marathoners to run New York for the third time. Some runners were tethered to their guides. Others ran as Wheatcroft had previously — shoulder to shoulder with their escorts, relying on touch and oral cues to remain safe. This time, however, he tried something bolder and riskier, attempting to navigate the course with only minimal assistance from three runners who shadowed him.
He did so with the technology of so-called corrective navigation. Race officials said Wheatcroft appeared to be the first runner to use it in New York to negotiate the course’s 26.2 miles, including five bridges, tricky turns, the rolling hills of Central Park and, most challenging, the jockeying of 50,000 other participants.
On his left arm, Wheatcroft wore a device that he helped develop with designers from a two-year-old Brooklyn company called WearWorks. The company’s first product is a wristband — adapted as an armband for Wheatcroft — called a Wayband. It connects via Bluetooth with a smartphone and uses information from Google Maps, OpenStreetMap and proprietary technology to guide wearers to their destination by emitting patterns of vibrations instead of voice commands.
Pulses from the armband were designed to keep Wheatcroft running on Sunday within a virtual corridor, about 20 feet wide, and to help him turn right and left. Four short, rapid vibrations signaled that a left turn was ahead. Two longer vibrations signaled a right turn.
He also wore an ultrasonic sensor on his chest. Two sharp vibrations alerted him to runners crossing his path. No vibrations meant he was free of obstacles. Gentle pulses suggested he was securely cocooned in a pack of runners moving at roughly the same speed.
Also attached to a strap on his chest was an iPhone. On his right arm was a separate GPS device to provide more accurate positioning on the course and to save battery life on the cellphone.
Wheatcroft, who has an equity share in WearWorks, say that tactile feedback is less intrusive and more intuitive than oral cues: Vibrations are not vulnerable to being drowned out by loud noises. The visually impaired are freed to use their sense of hearing to listen for approaching vehicles and pedestrians and to more fully engage in their surroundings.
The Wayband technology is not unlike that used by cars to avoid collisions and to park safely, except the sensors employ vibrations instead of beeps.
Wheatcroft was using new technology that had not been tested in a race. He understood that many things could go wrong. The metal girders of bridges along the course scrambled the digital compass on his iPhone. He worried about other possible navigational glitches caused by Bluetooth interference.
What if someone stopped in front of him to take a selfie? How would he refill his water bottle? Could he remain on course as the race turned off Fifth Avenue and funneled into Central Park at Mile 24, curling around the reservoir, which had seemed to befuddle his GPS on some test runs?
Wheatcroft was a seasoned distance runner, having completed the Boston Marathon three times and ultramarathons as long as 83 miles. In 2014, he ran from Boston to New York as a warm-up, then ran the New York City Marathon. He hoped to finish in four and a half hours on Sunday, more than 40 minutes faster than his previous best in New York.
Wheatcroft and Kevin Yoo, one of three founders of WearWorks, had been testing the Wayband technology since April. As with any prototypes, there were advances and setbacks. On Friday afternoon in Central Park, and again Saturday, last-minute refining continued with the chest sensor.
On Sunday, Yoo started his first marathon, hoping to accompany Wheatcroft for as long as he could. The Wayband device was turned off for the first two miles of the race on the ascent and descent of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Too many runners packed together. Too much risk of technological overload.
Crosswinds blowing over the chest sensor gave confusing signals to Wheatcroft on the bridge, but the roadway was wide and he had plenty of open space to run.
At the first water stop, about two and a half miles into the race, a guide for another runner stopped in front of Wheatcroft. His chest sensor was set to alert him when an obstacle was seven feet away. He did not have enough time to stop and clipped the woman from behind, but neither was hurt. At the second water stop, he slowed and moved to the center of the road.
Just after Mile 3, the Wayband device signaled incorrectly that Wheatcroft was headed in the wrong direction. He stopped and walked for a minute, then renewed his pace. Tall and thin, wearing a white cap on his shaved head, he had run four miles without any assistance.
while on the Pulaski Bridge at the halfway point, the Queensboro Bridge between Miles 15 and 16 or the Willis Avenue Bridge at Mile 20 — and the vibrations from his armband signaled incorrectly that he was veering off course.
For about 13 to 15 miles on Sunday, Wheatcroft ran mostly unassisted. But things began to go wrong. The digital compass in his iPhone and the redundant one he wore on his arm malfunctioned. His pace slowed to 13 minutes per mile from just over 10 minutes. He struggled to navigate, had two additional collisions and sometimes was essentially shouldered around curves by other runners. At other times, he relied on lines on the road that he could feel with his feet.
The extraordinary concentration required to guide himself “broke me,” Wheatcroft said.
At about Mile 16, the ultrasonic sensor also failed, apparently because of the rain. “We pretty much hit every issue we could potentially hit,” Yoo, the WearWorks founder, said.
For the final 10 miles, Wheatcroft ran as he had in previous marathons, with Bacon and Croak alongside, advising him of turns, potholes, curbs, water stops. He appeared exhausted when he crossed the finish line in 5 hours 17 minutes 40 seconds and put an arm around Bacon’s shoulder for support.
“Today was always about pushing the technology to its limit,” Wheatcroft said. “We found the limit earlier in the race than we would have liked. But it was lessons learned. We can improve, move forward, make it better. It’s not the end, it’s just a start.”
Source: The New York Times