Becoming an incubator for innovation

At Perkins Solutions, we ask questions that help us develop technologies that solve old and new challenges facing the blind community

A man using a white cane stands on the sidewalk

All travelers face micronavigation challenges, but for people who are blind or have low vision, they are especially frustrating. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

April 13, 2016

Sometimes, the best ideas originate in problems.

Here at Perkins Access, we have the unique opportunity to identify challenges faced by the visually impaired community. By engaging constantly with Perkins School for the Blind’s colleagues, teachers, families, students, alumni and library patrons who are blind or have low vision, we learn first-hand about obstacles or problems they face in their lives.

Let me share an example of how design thinking, based on listening to the community we serve and being open to experimentation, led us to embark on solving an old problem in a new way.

After consistently being asked “What are your challenges?” and “Where are the gaps in the technology you use?” one of my colleagues shared this problem: “I can’t find the bus stop,” she said. “When I stand where I think the bus stop is, and I hear the bus coming and try to wave it down, it doesn’t stop for me.”

This co-worker routinely uses GPS on her mobile phone to navigate public streets, but most GPS technology isn’t accurate enough to identify the precise location of a bus stop sign. That has to be frustrating – especially on a cold winter day here in Boston!  

Intrigued, I took an informal poll among staff on campus who are blind or have low vision. “How do you address this problem now?” I asked.

“I have to ask someone for help, and if there are no people around, that is a problem,” was one response.

“I use memory and a cane and hope for the best,” was another.

“I find the (bus stop sign) pole myself and hope it’s the right pole,” said another colleague who uses public transportation.

A pattern emerged.

We quickly realized that all travelers, both visually impaired and sighted, face these micronavigation challenges, but for people who are blind or have low vision, they are especially frustrating. Most commercial GPS technology only brings us within a 30-foot radius of our specific destination. Without sight, how do we traverse that final 30 feet safely and accurately?

Our challenge became finding a way to close that gap to a white cane’s length or less, so a person who is visually impaired can more easily locate bus stops and travel independently.  Building on technology that comes standard in today’s mobile smartphones provides one potential solution. Or as we say in the software business, “There needs to be an app for that!”

Google.org agreed, and awarded Perkins Solutions a grant. Our new project, the bus stop challenge, was born. We hope you’ll follow along as we work with people who are blind or low vision to test and develop better ways to find those bus stops. By making public transportation more accessible, I know we can improve peoples’ lives in a meaningful way. Read more at Perkins.org/bus.