Manitoba

Made-in-Manitoba technology aims to help visually impaired navigate indoors

A pair of graduates from Brandon’s Assiniboine Community College have developed a system to help the visually impaired navigate inside large buildings, including schools. 

System designed by Assiniboine Community College grads gives precise directions

Colin Marnoch (left) listens to an overview on how to use the beacon technology developed by Jairo Mosquera and Fadi Al Sai (centre and right). (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

A pair of 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. 

Prototype installed 

The system works by voice command 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 system uses a series of Bluetooth-enabled beacons, such as the one shown here, as well as a small microprocessor worn by the user. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The students have a prototype installed on 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." 

Right now, 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. 

'Endless possibilities'

Colin Marnoch lives with optic atrophy, a condition that affects the optic nerve. He describes himself as partially sighted, but functional. He has tested the prototype. 

"I think it's technology that has endless possibilities and can help many people though the daunting challenge of having to navigate a campus perhaps, or a larger workplace," he said. "It could really level and equal the playing field for many people." 

Colin Marnoch wears the small box with the voice-activated processor. The students say it could be developed into a smartphone app, but that wasn't part of the class curriculum. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Marnoch, who works with Vision Loss Rehabilitation Manitoba, assists people who have far greater vision loss or who are completely blind. 

"Often people that are travelling outside have some predictability as to what they can expect," he said. "As you enter indoors … each building you travel into is going to be so unique.

"A lot of the signage is not necessarily accessible by touch," Marnoch added. "A system like this that can recognize where you are and when you can ask it to take you somewhere and provide you that detailed direction would be a game changer, absolutely."   

Marnoch says options for similar types of systems are limited. 

Similar technology developed by a company in Finland, 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. 

Hopes for expansion

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 pair hopes to get some funding to further develop their technology and deploy it at the college. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

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. 

A pair of graduates from Brandon's Assiniboine Community College have developed a system to help the visually impaired navigate inside large buildings, including schools. 2:24

About the Author

Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback: riley.laychuk@cbc.ca.

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