RFID Tags Guide the Blind

Italian town's buried transponders keep blind people on the right track


Maps and street signs don’t work so well when you can’t see them. If you’re a blind person lost in most major cities, the best way to orient yourself is probably just to yell out, ”Where am I?”—and hope someone hears you. But a small town in Italy is building an electronic navigational system so that blind residents and tourists will never have to ask, ” Dove sono ?”

Last fall, the European Union’s Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen (IPSC), in Ispra, Italy, embedded 1260 RFID transponders into the sidewalks of Laveno Mombello, in the north of Italy, and linked them together in a network called SESAMONET. An antenna on the tip of a blind person’s cane activates each RFID chip it passes over, and the chip responds by radioing its unique tag number to a smart phone the person carries. That phone comes equipped with a database of navigational information that maps the tag numbers to locations throughout the town. The person then receives specific information about position and surroundings through a Bluetooth headset linked to the phone.

”It can either be a beep or bop that keeps you on the path, or if you have a traffic light, it gives you the information” about when to walk, says Marco Sironi, a sector head at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission, in Brussels, and leader on the project. The chipped path stretches for 2 kilometers in one direction, so users cannot yet choose alternate routes. But as the network grows, it will cue people to optional turns and could even guide them to a programmed destination. Because the smart phone’s internal map updates itself from a central database, operators can change the information to identify unexpected obstacles like construction.

The JRC originally decided to start the pilot project because it was looking for ways to recycle RFID tags from slaughtered European livestock. Based on the success of the pilot project, the IPSC is expanding the network to include access to commercial buildings. On 14 December the JRC linked the path on the street to RFID-marked paths inside a hostel and the town’s visitor center. The tags in the hostel will provide information about services and the orientation of the rooms.

Two years ago, Sumi Helal, a professor of computer science at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, built a similar RFID network, called Drishti, to aid blind students at the university. As the Italian RFID network grows, says Helal, the biggest challenge may be logistical, not technical. One of the hardest things to figure out is what information will help and what will just distract the blind person. ”Drilling down information the way he wants or she wants is really important,” he says.

Because the system accesses a central database, struggles will inevitably arise over who controls the information. Does the police station update the network, or does a commercial entity or a combination of parties? ”This is about what is the information and who owns it,” says Helal.

Mike Wigle, an access technology expert at the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, says that we won’t know whether the Italian system benefits or distracts blind people until the network becomes a bit more pervasive. According to him, the real test comes when ”you’ve got a blind person lost in the city trying to find a transponder in the road.”