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"Help Me Get There" app

July 1, 2015

About Nicholas Ivory

Nicholas Ivory is a senior electrical and computer engineer, presently finishing up the last two classes of his undergraduate degree. From July into August, Nick will be backpacking through the Balkans before he moves back to the New York/New Jersey area to be closer to his family. Nick will be pursuing employment in digital signal processing, with a special interest in acoustics.

About Alexander Greene

Alexander Greene recently accepted a fulltime position as a performance engineer for IBM’s Emptoris Product Suites, an industry leading cloud-based provider of strategic supply, category spend, and contract management solutions. In this role, Alexander tracks and reports performance metrics for a centralized database that manages new and existing user profiles across a range of products. Alexander’s interests include triathlons, marathons, and learning how to develop code with high performance and security. Find me on:

About Mike Donnelly

Mike Donnelly plans on staying within the defense industry for a few years, continuing to work for large companies as he has done on his co-op to gain sufficient industry knowledge and experience. Ultimately, Mike would like to create his own start-up company when he thinks the time is right and when he has the background to support his work. From the team’s capstone alone, Mike has seen what it takes to come up with an idea and create a prototype, all while staying under budget and ahead of schedule. The next step would be to revise our design and bring our product to market, which is still practical even though we have all graduated.

"Help Get Me There" app

Northeastern University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering holds an annual Capstone Competition where senior ECE students submit projects built off the knowledge they have gained over their academic careers. These submissions must consist of innovative applications of existing technology or never before seen ideas; one cannot simply reverse engineer existing technology and submit the knockoff! These constraints encourage students to invest time in creating new and innovative ideas, and makes the competition that much more exciting to be a part of.

Our team, consisting of Chad Hoffart, Nick Spath, Alexander Greene, Mike Donnelly, Nick Ivory, Tom Judd, and Noah Goldstein, immediately recognized this competition as an opportunity to help those less fortunate than us, and decided to focus on aiding those with visual impairments. Our advisor, Professor Waleed Meleis was thrilled with the idea, and revealed that he has lead similar projects as the leader of Northeastern University’s Enabling Engineering program. The Enabling Engineering program focuses on creating low-cost devices that improve the lives of individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities. Professor Meleis explained that the only way to develop a viable solution to a problem is to meet with real people that deal with it every day.

Following Professor Meleis’ advice, we reached out to the National Braille Press, an organization that prints and distributes braille to people of all ages, to learn about the hardships that the visually impaired face daily. The National Braille Press introduced our team to two of their employees, Amber and Winter, who are visually impaired. Meeting with Amber and Winter taught us that the visually impaired find that:

  • Traveling around a busy city is stressful, and that intersections are where they feel most vulnerable

  • Prior to crossing an intersection, they must align themselves with the crosswalks to avoid walking into traffic

  • Knowing about traffic patterns and construction makes traveling that much easier

  • They have no desire to rely on others for guidance

  • Many existing solutions have limitations, such as how service dogs are instinctive and often surprise their owners with unexpected behavior

  • Smartphone applications like Google Maps have certainly made traveling easier, but these GPS based applications are not designed for use by the visually impaired and can be as far as 30 feet off

Convinced that we could improve travel experience for the visually impaired, we proposed creating a new smartphone application that focuses on providing the users with up-to-date information to help them cross unfamiliar crosswalks. Amber and Winter expressed genuine interest and agreed to help us develop the application. We began by defining what information a visually impaired user may need to know to help them confidently cross an intersection. This criteria included:

  • The names of the streets at the intersection

  • A way to align themselves with the crosswalk, so that they don’t walk into traffic

  • The name of the road being crossed and if it is one-way or bidirectional

  • Acknowledgement of unforeseen variables such as MBTA trains, construction, or bike paths

After defining the information our application would provide users with, we wanted to work on developing a UI that wouldn’t hinder users with visual impairments. Amber and Winter suggested that the application should recognize when the user approaches an intersection on its own, and to automate as much of the application as possible. The team learned that visually impaired users find it easy to tap or swipe the screen, but small buttons can be very difficult, especially while walking around. We came up with the idea that one should be able to switch between the information provided by the application when the users swipes anywhere on the screen, and that all swipes should provide audible feedback to users. This forgiving approach removes the need for users to pinpoint buttons on the UI providing users with a clear idea of what is going on.

After all that work on designing the application, we had to find ways to implement a working prototype. We knew that the application must:

  • Know when a user encounters a crosswalk, without user input

  • Have a database that populates relevant information based on location

  • Have a UI that is easy to navigate without any sight

  • Provide audible feedback to users

        Determining when a user encounters a crosswalk is one of the most important aspects of the Help Me Get There! Solution. We originally planned to use GPS to track the user, but realized that the coordinates collected this way can be as far off as 30 feet! This inaccuracy could risk the user’s safety when traveling through a busy intersection, so we instead used Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) RFID tags and proposed implementing them in ADA crosswalk mats around the city.

Each tag contains a unique serial number that can be scanned by a RFID reader. Knowing that users wouldn’t want to walk around with their phone inches off the ground, we designed a RFID-To-Bluetooth module to transmit the RFID serial number to the smartphone application when the user is within three feet. This module could be placed in a dog harness or cane and scans for nearby tags every three seconds, so users need only step near the mat to identify their location.    

Once the application receives a tag number it queries a database base and audibly alerts the user that a mat has been found. At this point, full control of the system is in the user’s hands. Through a combination of swiping and double tapping anywhere on the screen, the user can easily hear:

  • The names of the streets at the intersection

  • How to align themselves with the crosswalk with  the help of our interactive compass

  • The name of the road being crossed and if it is one-way or bidirectional

  • About unforeseen variables such as MBTA trains, construction or the existence of an island

    At the end of the the Spring 2015 semester, we presented our design to a panel of judges and won second place in the Capstone design contest. While it was an honor to be recognized and acknowledged for our efforts, the true reward was in the appreciation from our cohorts over at the Braille Press. Having worked for the better part of a year since our first meeting, we again reconvened to discuss and share our final product. The feedback was generally positive, and overall, the experience truly humbling. At the end of the 2015 semester, we relinquished our design with additional comments towards areas of improvement to the ECE department with the hope of potential future development.

Learn more about the app here