National Federation of the Blind
Helman: Trying to Teach Students to Be Activists
By CATHERINE RAMPELL
Reprinted from The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 2008
Three years ago, in the depths
of a Pittsburgh winter, Priya Narasimhan saw a blind man trying to catch
a bus. Stepping in and out of pools of slush, the man called out to passing
pedestrians to ask if a vehicle he heard arriving was his ride home. Buses
"We can do better than
that," Ms. Narasimhan said to herself.
Ms. Narasimhan, an associate
professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University,
soon became the hub for student research projects that develop technologies
to assist the disabled by doing such tasks as identifying buses or translating
sign language into spoken words. Their creations turn the most ubiquitous
device on a college campus - the cell phone - into an independence-enhancing
Some of these endeavors are
now being spun off into a small company. Ms. Narasimhan's and her students'
accomplishments have come after countless hours of work, some for credit
but much uncredited, and almost always not financed save for a small grant
cadged from the university.
Shortly after the bus incident,
Ms. Narasimhan began kicking around ideas about ways to make blind people's
lives easier using technology. Her main priorities were convenience and
affordability, so her first inclination was to upgrade something many
blind people already use: canes. Perhaps, she thought, she could create
a cane that would give audio clues to the surrounding environment.
In the process, she began consulting
with Dan Rossi, a systems administrator at Carnegie Mellon who has been
blind since childhood. Mr. Rossi has strong views about what kinds of
technologies can help blind people. He told Ms. Narasimhan flatly that
upgrading the cane, as other inventors have tried to do, was a terrible
"A cane is a cheap tool," he said. "You know, its 20 bucks. You can break them, you can throw them away, you can get them wet, and they don't have to be recharged. It's like a pencil. You really don't want to soup up a pencil."
The first adaptation helps
solve the problem faced by the blind man waiting for the bus. Her students'
software program allows users to retrieve scheduled bus routes on their
smart phones from the transit system's Web site. The schedules are then
read aloud by the phone. But buses tend to be off-schedule, so Ms. Narasimhan
said she is also lobbying the local transit authority to give her access
to buses' GPS locations. That way a blind person can know for certain
if the vehicle he hears approaching is the one he needs to board.
The second project assists
blind people in shopping for groceries or other goods by connecting a
tiny bar-code reader to a cell phone, which retrieves product names from
a free Universal Product Code database that is already available on the
Internet. This way, Mr. Rossi said, he doesn't need a sighted person to
help him determine if the cookie box he is holding is oatmeal raisin or
Ms. Narasimhan is hoping to
build a new version of the public UPC database that will include nutritional
information, pricing, and other details that a visually impaired shopper
might want to know.
Devices already exist that
allow people to create custom-made bar-codes, which could be added to
the new database so that blind users could label and then identify objects
at home or at work.
The last vision-related project
Ms. Narasimhan and her students have been working on may receive more
attention thanks to a major lawsuit.
In May a U.S. appeals court
ruled that the U.S. Treasury must change U.S. paper currency to make bills
accessible to the blind. Unlike paper currency from most other countries,
U.S. bills of different denominations are the same size and have the same
texture. Blind people thus must ask sighted people to identify the bills
they are given, and then usually rely on folding or organizing tricks
to remember which bills are which. Ms. Narasimhan's students have provided
an alternative. They have populated a database with images of bills, crisp
and crumpled, well lit and shadowed. With special software, a blind person
can take a picture of a bill using a cell phone camera. The software will
transmit the picture to the database and name the bill based on an image
match. There are already text-reading currency identifiers that can also
read words from a variety of other sources. A blind person using these
products must zoom in directly on the word "FIVE" or number
"5," though, rather than any other part of the bill. Image matching,
with the Carnegie Mellon system, does not have this limitation, though
it has the disadvantage of not being able to identify unknown text such
as that on menus.
Mr. Rossi and Ms. Narasimhan
said that for years they have been trying to get the ear of the Treasury
Department - the defendant in the currency accessibility suit - about
"My point to them was
'You guys can either spend a whole lot of money modifying your currency
or you could just buy a bunch of cell phones and give them away,'"
Mr. Rossi said.
He said department officials
have always wished him well but are reluctant to support any particular
So far Ms. Narasimhan has been
financing most of the research out of her own pocket, though she recently
secured a grant from the university for $50,000. She is trying to figure
out how to get the prototypes off the ground, bundling them into a spinoff
company called BeaconSys. When talking to potential financers, she and
Mr. Rossi emphasize ways that this software created to help blind people
could be useful to sighted customers - for example, the bus-schedule software
would be helpful to anyone using public transportation - thereby expanding
the market and bringing down prices.
While trying to secure backing
for the technology projects for the blind, Ms. Narasimhan has also been
advising a nascent project that uses text-to-speech software on cell phones
to assist the deaf. This project involves a gesture-recognition glove
that can translate hand movements, such as American Sign Language, into
spoken words. When a deaf person wearing the glove makes a sign, sensors
in the glove translate each hand position into words that are then read
aloud by the cell phone's text-to-speech software. That way, the deaf
person can communicate with a hearing person who doesn't know ASL.
This project is still in the
early stages and right now can translate only a few test gestures - a
thumbs-up sign triggers the phrase "Go, Pens!," for example,
in honor of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Despite the financial straits
Ms. Narasimhan's students say they are in, and the fact that they are
no longer receiving course credit for this work, they devote many late
nights and weekends to the assistive-technology projects.
"I spend a little more
time on this stuff than I should be, at least if I want to graduate anytime
soon," said Patrick E. Lanigan, a graduate student who has been working
on the technologies for the blind. But, he and his colleagues say, in
this kind of work, they are motivated by more than the desire to obtain
a degree, and have learned to get a lot of work done even when resources
"This has mostly been
a soup-kitchen kind of project," says Ms. Narasimhan.
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