Bluetooth Beacons Light the Way for Man Living with Retinitis Pigmentosa

Bruce Howell is 63 years old living with retinitis pigmentosa. He’s been legally blind since age 37. As a result, public transportation is a critical service to him. Without the public bus he wouldn’t be able to make it to his job or many other places on his own. Even getting to the bus, however, can be a struggle for those without sight. That’s why Howell is excited about a new technological development being implemented by his local transportation authority. Keep reading to learn more, or follow the original story here for additional information.

What is Retinitis Pigmentosa?

Retinitis pigmentosa is a group of rare genetic disorders affecting the light sensitive cells at the back of the eye (retina). It is a degenerative disorder, progressively worsening over time. Retinitis pigmentosa may lead to a loss of low-light or night vision as well as a loss of peripheral vision. Over time, it may cause different degrees of blindness.

Retinitis pigmentosa may be inherited through autosomal recessive, autosomal dominant, or x-linked inheritance patterns.

No current treatment exists for retinitis pigmentosa. There are, however, several methods to assist those with vision loss as a result of the condition and to slow the progression of retinitis pigmentosa. Click here to learn more about retinitis pigmentosa and what research is being conducted.

Catching the Bus

Howell can’t rely on his vision any longer, but technologies have stepped up to fill the gap. One such breakthrough is the BlindWays app developed by Watertown’s Perkins School for the Blind. Howell has been using the app for about a year.

Bus stops, as Howell notes, are not uniformly distributed throughout cities. They are often difficult even for people without visual disabilities to locate. According to the developer’s description, BlindWays uses GPS technology to help the visually impaired find their bus stop. The app can get users within 30 feet of their stop. Anything further than that, they claim, makes it all too easy for people like Howell to miss their bus.

Howell demonstrates his use of the app by locating the Route 52 bus stop outside the Carroll School where he works. The BlindWays app even describes the objects surrounding the bus stop, such as a fire hydrant. This allows Howell to search out these objects with his cane and determine if he is in the right spot or not.

A Step Further

Recently, the local transportation authority announced a collaboration with the Perkins School. The aim is to improve the functionality of the BlindWays app even further. The transportation authority has plans to install Bluetooth beacons alongside bus stops to allow for BlindWays to become even more effective.

These beacons, valued at about $10 a piece, are able to communicate with the BlindWays app. The result, is that the app is able to trigger the vibrate function of a users cell phone based on location relative tot he beacon. As a user approaches a beacon, tied to a bus stop, the vibrations of the phone become more pronounced. It’s sort of like a virtual game of “hot and cold.”

Currently the beacons are only installed at two locations, but there are plans to expand the technology to other locations. Howell says that the sooner this can be done, the better. BlindWays has given him a real confidence boost. More than that, it has helped restore some of his independence.

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