Haley Sumner’s first few weeks at Butler University were spent navigating campus—learning routes between buildings, figuring out where to go for coffee, and learning how to use her student ID card. Most new students could always use a head start, but Sumner, who graduated in May 2019, is blind. She needed three weeks before the start of classes to feel comfortable with her new academic environment.
Sumner admits there were challenges as construction changed her routes every year. The young graduate had to be mindful of twisting sidewalks, changes in ground surfaces, and certain doors being made unavailable, again due to construction.
“Having a guide dog was an asset,” Sumner says. “It was incredible to work with a guide dog. I thought campus was very accessible.”
But not all blind or visually impaired people have access to a guide dog, and those who do use guide dogs may not have weeks to learn Butler’s campus. What if a visually impaired prospective student wants to find their way around? What if a blind person wants to attend a concert at Clowes Memorial Hall?
A team of undergraduate software developers are working on an answer. Led by Computer Science and Software Engineering Professor Panos Linos, the team is creating a digital guide for the blind and visually impaired. Inspired by its four-legged predecessors, GuideDawg 2.0 will be a mobile prototype application available in time for fall 2020 classes. The app will work on any smartphone.
Initial coding started in fall 2018, and Linos says the students will have enough of GuideDawg 2.0 complete to present at conferences next semester. The app will vocally tell users the best route to take from class to class or the cafeteria to Starbucks in Atherton Union. Custom digital mapping installed in the software combined with GPS location will serve as guidance but with features that stretch beyond Google Maps.
“They are eager to push the envelope,” he says. “Throughout this project, it wasn’t just about finding the answers but also finding the questions. We are really figuring out what it means to have people differently abled than us. These students are all here because of their willingness to learn, to explore, and to communicate.”
Serving the community
GuideDawg 1.0 was developed by Linos and other students for the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in 2015. Blind students at the school were assisted by navigation instructors to get around, but they weren’t getting detailed directions once outside the classroom and on their own. GuideDawg helped them get from classroom to classroom as it gave directions step by step.
Linos and his students had to develop a completely different user experience than typical apps they developed in class. They also had to factor the cadence of the app’s vocalizations with voice-to-text and text-to-voice development, while eliminating as many touches as possible.
“They can hear—and prefer—much faster speech for their apps,” Linos says. “We had to speed up the voice for the app.”
For GuideDawg 1.0, Linos had his students wear blindfolds in early meetings.
“Everybody was wearing them while holding their phones,” Linos says. “That experience reminds us of who the actual user will be. We had ideas that would work for you and me, but not for someone who is differently-abled. Would a blind student be able to use this?”
A major key to GuideDawg 2.0 will be data collection by Linos’ students. They are in the process of gathering the latitude and longitude of every door on Butler’s campus—every classroom, every entrance to Atherton Union, every bathroom. The data will be entered into a database that GuideDawg 2.0 will pull from via Microsoft Azure cloud. A pre-existing database of every room at Butler that contains technology was also utilized courtesy of Butler Information Technology.
Bluetooth-activated, weatherproof sensors were purchased and will be placed at construction sites and other “hazardous” areas on campus. The sensors work as beacons to trigger GuideDawg 2.0 and are designed to blend in with walls and doorways.
“It’s an interesting challenge,” says Ryan Graham, a senior studying Computer Science on the GuideDawg 2.0 team, “to try to make it so users can understand where buttons are very efficiently and effectively without seeing them. It can’t be clunky with a billion buttons on the front. It has to be very minimal but extremely functional.”
GuideDawg 2.0 must be nimble and able to change with a growing campus. In just the last year, the new building for the Andre B. Lacy School of Business and the expansion and renovation of the sciences buildings were added to maps.
“I think Butler is really big on inclusivity, and this is just another step in becoming more inclusive,” says Gabbi Forsythe, a Software Engineering senior developing the web interface of the app, “so everyone can get around campus.”
Michele Atterson, Director of the Office of Student Disability Services (SDS), agrees that GuideDawg 2.0 will only improve a campus that has received favorable accessibility feedback, even at active construction sites. She says, “I had many conversations with the project managers for the (sciences complex construction) to ensure the color contrast, font, and size of the detour signage was also accessible to people with vision impairments—as well as those with mobility impairments.
“Raising disability awareness is a mission of SDS. Overall, we have a community that is committed to welcoming people with disabilities.”
The students presented their progress on GuideDawg 2.0 at the October 25 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Committee meeting and were met with enthusiastic, positive feedback. The project was given a $500 donation from committee chair Michael Swarzman ’74 and his wife, Barbara Grier, on the spot.
“You can’t help but respect the innovation a project like that demands,” Swarzman says. “It is an obvious commitment for the professor and the students. Expanding on need of inclusivity and diversity is applaudable and the broader application to it is exactly what my family wants to support.”
During her senior year at Butler, Sumner served as a consultant for GuideDawg 2.0’s early development. She took the developers on her campus routes and pointed out landmarks like a loud air conditioner near Jordan Hall. Sumner noted doors that were difficult for her to open. The GuideDawg team implemented these details into the app to alert users when they approach potential problem areas.
“I think this will be very beneficial for step-by-step routes between buildings,” Sumner says. “Hopefully it will have a very smooth transition.”
Sumner adds that apps like Google Maps don’t have enough spatial awareness for blind users. Like the young students at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Sumner couldn’t rely on Apple Maps for which doors to use and what hallways to take to reach her Communications Sciences and Disorders classes on time.
But accessible technology has come a long way and is improving rapidly. Sumner has noticed a marked improvement in the quality of apps and screen-reading software. GuideDawg 2.0 will be part of the further advancement in technological accessibility. Sumner still lives around Butler and she is excited to download the app next year.
“Technology has come a long way,” says Sumner, who is pursuing certification as a life coach. “It needs to continue to be equal and inclusive for everyone. It will cultivate empowerment and diminish stigma.”
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