PSU researchers' work first step in developing accessible navigation apps for all
Author: Stefanie Knowlton
Posted: October 23, 2019
 Portland State University researchers Martin Swobodzinski and Amy Parker are laying the groundwork for digital apps that will help travelers of all abilities navigate both indoors and out. 

Current technology leaves a lot to be desired from the users standpoint, according to the researchers’ previous study. For example, those with visual impairments juggle multiple apps to navigate city streets and indoor spaces, which drains batteries and could leave them stranded. 

“We also found that many apps that were designed for those with visual impairments were inaccessible to members of the deafblind community,” said Professor Amy Parker. 

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Current apps also fail to give users vital information when traveling between indoor and outdoor spaces such as where is the door, are there steps and where do you go once inside? 

“There are few accessible wayfinding options for people who are visually impaired or deafblind,” Prof. Martin Swobodzinski said, “and virtually none that offer solutions for the seamless transition between indoor to outdoor spaces.”

That is until now. 

This fall, researchers will map the PSU campus recording everything from the width of the walkway in Smith Hall to the slope of the sidewalks outside, and even the noise level throughout the day to build a framework for accessible navigation. 

The goal is to develop suggested routes based on a wide range of abilities and preferences whether you’re traveling in a wheelchair, using a cane or service animal, or you’re sensitive to sound. The work could lead to navigation apps for a wide range of users.

In addition to using traditional mapping technology, researchers will create digital twins of interior spaces to model conditions inside in real-time. Information from this digital twin will help develop the best routes through campus-based on mobility needs and time of day. 

The pair received a $116,699 grant from The National Institute for Transportation & Communities (NITC) research consortium at Portland State University for the wayfinding study. PSU’s Digital City Testbed Center and American Printing House for the Blind provided substantial matching support as well. 

 "Using technology to improve accessibility is one of our top priorities at the Digital City Testbed Center, and we're excited to support Amy Parker and Martin Swobodzinski on this project," said Jonathan Fink, director of the Digital City Testbed Center.


The project includes: 

  • Examining existing wayfinding technology and technology platforms
  • Gathering information needs and experiences of visually-impaired, blind, and deafblind pedestrians
  • Creating an inventory of the spaces inside and outside PSU buildings, including features that guide individual route choices.
  • Swobodzinski and Parker will assess their digital application based on pedestrians’ experiences and perceptions on usefulness and usability. 
  • The researchers will use this information to recommend best practices for deploying wayfinding technology and apps for seamless navigation in indoor and outdoor spaces. 

The information could help shape apps of the future that help improve accessibility for everyone.

Photos by Shawn Peterson