Guest post from Dr. Ping Chen, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, UMass Boston
University campuses are complex and busy mazes of hustle and bustle. At times, they might be under-construction, experiencing changes, or lack signage or symmetry that makes them difficult to navigate, even for those familiar with the layout. People who are blind, use wheelchairs, or have cognitive disabilities may have many additional difficulties.
At University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston), where approximately three percent of the student population has some form of disability, we value diversity and access for our students, faculty and staff as critical to the achievement of our academic programs.
This is why we are working with IBM to continue our mission of inclusion by ensuring that all of our students have access to both the digital and physical environments of our campus. To achieve this, we are deploying IBM Accessible Location-based Services, a cognitive way-finding application that is designed to provide contextual understanding about someone’s location in a building and then direct them with an accessible route to their destination.
Our UMass Boston engineering students have spent the past academic year collecting Wi-Fi signals in one of our campus buildings. Our students will continue mapping our remaining campus buildings so this solution can be used by students and faculty with disabilities to give them more independence and help them navigate between classes and the bus, the bathroom, or the cafeteria.
After downloading an app on their mobile device, the system will help UMass Boston students and faculty identify where they are using Wi-Fi signals that landmark specific locations. After inputting a destination, the app will guide the user with turn-by-turn directions and accessible route guidance based on the current physical campus environment. And, because the app is set up based on a user’s abilities – blind/low vision, deaf/hard of hearing, reduced mobility or a cognitive disability – it will personalize the way in which the directions are delivered, such as audibly or via haptic cues, so the user can make their way along a route that is appropriate for their abilities. It will also eliminate certain routes, such as stairways for those in a wheelchair.
IBM Accessible Location-based Services also has great potential to be used in many different locations, such as airports, hospitals, office buildings, and shopping malls. It can also be used in many different scenarios, such as by firefighters inside of buildings so they know where they are at all times, or helping an elderly person successfully navigate a department store and shop with minimal assistance. Additionally, a person with poor short-term memory could be guided to an exit near the place where their car is parked.
Our inclusive campus environment is just one example of how cognitive computing and mobile technology are changing people’s lives for better. I’m also excited that our own students have worked so hard on this project as it allows them to solve a real-world challenge and develop the skills necessary to support global inclusion and improve the quality of life for their friends and fellow classmates.
IBM and UMass Boston will continue to work together to explore new ways to integrate accessibility technologies into the design of mobile devices, apps, or websites that enable access for people with disabilities and the growing aging population.