Two graduates from Brandon’s Assiniboine Community College have developed a system to help the visually impaired navigate inside large buildings, including schools.
Fadi Al Sai and Jairo Mosquera, who recently graduated from the Manitoba college’s communications engineering technology program, created the system as part of a school project. It uses wireless beacons and microprocessors to pinpoint a user’s location and give exact directions, down to the metre, to where a user wishes to go.
“The idea is [to give] visually impaired people the ability to study higher school and this system will give them the opportunity,” said Mosquera, who moved to Canada from Colombia three years ago.
The system works by and responds with directions in English, or in another language that the user speaks. A computer system tracks the user’s location and can relay information to security in the event the user needs help.
The students have a prototype installed on the third floor of the college’s campus, where the program’s classroom and lab space are located.
“I feel great about how the device works,” said Al Sai, who moved to Canada four years ago from Lebanon. “We hope that we can install the device everywhere that can help visually impaired people.”
Currently, the user interface for the system is a small box with a microprocessor — voice activated with the word Elsa — that the user wears around their neck. The pair say it could one day be developed into a smartphone app, however it wasn’t part of the class curriculum.
“Each beacon is supported by its own [lithium] battery,” said Mosquera. “The user model has its own battery. That way we don’t have to be worried about the power.”
The pair estimates the batteries will last up to two years in the beacons, which use Bluetooth to relay information to the user interface.
Similar technology from BlindSquare, which also uses beacons as well as GPS and QR codes, was deployed at the University of Guelph last year and in Regina two years ago.
A number of other overseas-based companies have also developed other technologies, but the students hope their made-in-Manitoba solution gains traction and can one day move beyond the prototype phase.
“We hope we can get funding to help develop … this device,” said Al Sai.
“It was not easy, but now that we have to see we can say that the system can be improved more, like all projects, and we have ideas on how to improve the product,” said Mosquera, while also crediting his other classmates and instructors with helping he and Al Sai. English is neither man’s first language, so they relied on their classmates to make sure the correct prompts and terms were being used.
Their instructor, Grant Nicol, says students in the program are encouraged to come up with a unique idea for the program’s capstone project, which students are given four months to complete.
“We like to hope or encourage them to continue working on it on their own,” he said, adding that projects out of the program have been used in agriculture and other sectors over the years.
“We always welcome them back and give them access to the labs and facilities and stuff like that,” Nicol said.
The students hope to fine-tune the system before trying to get funding to deploy it throughout the college as a start. The cost of the system would depend on how many beacons need to be installed.
“The idea is to install this system in all of this campus and later move on to other schools, colleges [and] universities,” said Mosquera.
“I think a technology like this could really help boost someone’s confidence and courage to step into an environment such as this and be confident they can find their destination independently,” said Marnoch.