A government-sponsored research project aims to help the blind move freely about town by combining cell phones, wireless Internet, global positioning and voice-recognition technology to tell people where they are.
The project, called "Noppa," is being developed by the Technical Research Center of Finland, or VTT, a nonprofit, government-owned research organization. The system is ready for testing this fall.
The guidance system, which works with a third-generation cellular phone coupled to a GPS device, tells the users where they are, how to get where they want to go, and gives directions and explains obstacles by voice.
"The idea is that the user can say, 'I'm going to such-and-such a place,' and the system responds by saying which bus to take, and how to get to the stop," said Ari Virtanen, a VTT researcher.
The device is also hooked up to municipal databases to warn about road and sidewalk construction sites when giving directions, as well as inform about train, streetcar, and bus timetables and possible delays. If multiple buses use the same stop, the Noppa service tells users where their bus is and when it's expected to arrive at the stop so they know which one to board.
A news and information service is also available to read users the latest weather reports.
The project might include optional applications such as a collision detection system that tells users about immediate obstacles, and a database that could give a spoken version of signs on roads and in the surroundings.
The project is going to be evaluated by a group of blind testers in the fall, in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, and the city of Tampere. It's costing about $600,000, which is being picked up the Finnish state.
The core of the system contains speech-recognition and production software that relays requests and plays back replies in speech -- all of which is performed at a central server, not with the device. It identifies street names and basic requests.
Operating the device with speech instead of pressing buttons is a crucial feature for the blind, said Juha Sylberg, development manager at the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired.
"Imagine digging out your cellular phone -- which is the size of a large box of matches -- in midwinter, wearing thick mittens with rain and sleet whirling around you, and then try to start keying away at these tiny buttons," Sylberg said.
Although the project is not commercial, VTT's research often serves as a basis for marketable products. And in this case, the researchers believe the features and the products they're developing and testing would have a lot of appeal to a general population.
Indeed, some of the same technologies are already combined in other products, such as car navigation systems. Tourists in San Francisco can rent little buggies known as GoCars that combine GPS with an automated voice that serves as a tour guide.
"A number of similar devices are already out on the market," Virtanen said about the Finland project. "What we're doing instead is trying to estimate the range and variety of services that can be provided, and how reliable they are in real life."
By Mans Hulden
© 2004 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.