Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Investigating the Navigation Challenges for the Visually Impaired in Unfamiliar Indoor Environments.

  Ziyad Yehia (2015 cohort)   www.nottingham.ac.uk/~psxzky

As of 2014, 11 Million people in the UK (17% of the population) are living with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability (Office for Disability Issues, & Department for Work and Pensions, 2014). Of this total, 2 Million people are living with visual impairments and due to the general aging of the UK population this number is expected to rise to 2.25 Million by 2030, and further to 4 Million by 2050 (RNIB, 2015).

Navigation is most frequently defined in the literature as the 'purposeful' or 'goal directed' movement through space (Freundschuh, 2001; Montello, 2005). Navigation is generally conceptualised as having two main components; locomotion and wayfinding (Montello, 2005). Locomotion is the part of navigation that occurs within an individual's sensory horizon and governs processes such as obstacle avoidance, steering and maintaining balance. Wayfinding however, is the more cognitive component of navigation that deals with arriving at locations beyond one's current sensory horizon. Typical wayfinding tasks include planning trips, selecting routes and orienting oneself towards a distant presently non-perceptible landmark (Montello & Sas, 2006).

Navigation draws upon an individual's capabilities of spatial cognition (Montello, 2001); their ability to acquire, manipulate and use spatial information in order to orient, avoid obstacles, plan routes and arrive at a destination safely.

Most spatial information is acquired through the visual modality, and with B/VI people having, by definition, a reduced access to this sensory modality, they are forced to acquire spatial information through less suited means such as sound and touch (Lahav & Mioduser, 2008; Jacobson, 2013).

This reduced access to spatial information impairs spatial cognition and makes it more difficult for B/VI to form what are known as 'cognitive maps' (Golledge, 1999). The term 'cognitive map' was coined by Tolman (1948) and refers to representations of an environment than an individual may hold in their mind. Cognitive maps are understood to be a critical component of successful navigation (Golledge,1999).

In an outdoor environment, spatial information can be much more easily acquired by B/VI people through the use of technologies such as GPS. GPS and tools built on top of it such as Google Maps and Apple Maps allow an individual to skip the requirement to form their own cognitive map and reduce the navigation task to much simpler route-following behaviour instead.

In an indoor environment however, GPS signals are generally unavailable due to the inability for the radio waves to penetrate concrete building structures (Bensky, 2016). In this situation, if a B/VI individual wants to navigate an indoor environment independently, they are now required to form their very own cognitive map of an environment, which without vision is not a simple task.

Upon encountering an unfamiliar indoor environment, my recent studies have shown that B/VI people experience a sense of anxiety. Psychology research defines anxiety as 'a response to prolonged unpredictable threat' (Robinson, 2013). From this, one may understand that B/VI people perceive unfamiliar indoor environments as holding some kind of threat, but the nature of those threats for a given environment are not necessarily known at the outset.

These threats do not need to be physically harmful (although they may be). In order to be considered a threat, it would be sufficient for environmental factors to provide a negative emotional stimulus such embarrassment or lack of confidence.

For some, the difficulty of indoor navigation is enough to cause them to avoid navigating to/through new indoor environments. This is a form of self-imposed transport exclusion (Mackett & Thoreau, 2015). Transport exclusion has been shown to be a key component of social exclusion and therefore a factor that reduces the well-being of an individual over the long term (Mackett & Thoreau, 2015; UK Social Exclusion Unit, 2003).

Furthermore, indoor navigation is a critical component of everyday life. Many areas of life depend on the traversal of indoor environments such as shopping centres, train stations, airports, restaurants, leisure centres, educational establishments etc.

To deal with these necessities of everyday life, B/VI people have developed their own methods of overcoming the challenges they face, but these methods usually rely on the assistance of others and the quality of this assistance can vary significantly.

For example, it is well reported that it is common for B/VI people to conduct extensive preparation before a trip in order to maximise their opportunities of constructing a suitable cognitive map (Beatrice Dias et al., 2015). There is research in the literature that is investigating how virtual environments may be used to aid in this process (Lahav & Mioduser, 2004; Lahav & Mioduser, 2008), but such techniques are not commonplace as of yet. Many B/VI people resort to more traditional methods such as arranging a guided tour of an environment with either a friend, family member or an orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor to help familiarise themselves with an environment ahead of time (Banovic et al., 2013; Beatrice Dias et al., 2015). This allows B/VI people to form their own cognitive map of an environment in a safe setting and then return later as desired. Once within an indoor environment it is common for B/VI to seek assistance from staff or the public in order to reach their goals either at the outset or upon facing difficulty (Beatrice Dias et al., 2015).

Although this reliance on others does provide practical benefits, B/VI people frequently express a deep desire for the ability to navigate independently (Banovic et al., 2013). To that end, there is frequently research output focused on technology prototypes to assist B/VI navigation (e.g. Vítek et al., 2011; Ganz et al., 2012) but still the most common aids that are used by B/VI people include a human sighted aid, the white cane and the guide dog (Bernadine Dias et al., 2015).

There seems to be a trend in the literature to attempt to replace traditional aids with more high-tech tools, but there are strong research arguments to suggest this to be the incorrect approach and that instead we should be trying to complement already existing strategies with technology rather than replacing them (Sanchez & Elias, 2007). This research is a proponent of this latter approach and aims to produce an in-depth understanding of the indoor navigation needs of B/VI people so that we can understand what makes specific indoor navigational aids useful and how they can be better improved or augmented.

Current and Future Work

In my first research study I conducted a set of semi-structured telephone interviews with 5 B/VI guide dog users to discuss their experiences travelling through various indoor environments in their day to day lives. The interviews touched on topics such as what challenges participants face within indoor environments and what techniques and navigation aids they use to overcome those challenges, as well as the perceived benefits and drawbacks of such approaches. The interviews were transcribed and salient themes extracted using Braun and Clarke's (2012) thematic analysis approach.

Although not yet defined potential directions for future work include conducting walk-along interviews with B/VI people as they go about their daily lives navigating indoor environments. This is hoped to provide further depth and contextualisation to elicited user needs.

Thereafter further refinement of user needs can be achieved using technology probes (Hutchinson et al., 2003) and focus groups (Barbour, 2007) and compiled into a thesis presenting a set of requirements and consideration that designers should bear in mind when designing for B/VI people travelling in unfamiliar indoor environments.


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  24. Vítek, S., Klíma, M., Husník, L., & Spirk, D. (2011). New possibilities for blind people navigation. In Proceedings of 2011 International Conference on Applied Electronics (pp. 1–4).

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/L015463/1) and Guide Dogs For The Blind Association.