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Trend Newsletter: Research 2017

April 27, 2017

New route-finding map lets Seattle pedestrians avoid hills, construction, accessibility barriers

Transportation routing services primarily designed for people in cars don’t give pedestrians, parents pushing strollers or people in wheelchairs much information about how to easily navigate a neighborhood using sidewalks.

For someone with limited mobility, using sidewalks or pedestrian paths in unfamiliar areas can be like driving without directions and hitting dead end after dead end. Obstacles include hills that are too steep for wheelchairs or people with certain health issues to climb, and sidewalks without sloped “curb cuts” that allow people using wheeled devices to safely and easily cross intersections.

AccessMap — a project spearheaded by the UW Taskar Center for Accessible Technology — recently launched a new online travel planner offering customizable suggestions for people who need accessible or pedestrian-friendly routes when getting from point A to B in Seattle.

It also routes people around Seattle’s ubiquitous building and construction sites that can close sidewalks for entire blocks, forcing people who are traveling on foot or using assistive devices to embark on unforeseen detours.

The team of student engineers and computer scientists is also creating a set of standards and toolkits that will eventually let users crowdsource and map detailed, real-world conditions on pedestrian pathways and intersections — from sidewalk widths and problematic surface conditions to the presence of ramps, handrails and adequate lighting.

UW engineers turn everyday objects into FM radio stations

Imagine you’re waiting in your car and a poster for a concert from a local band catches your eye. What if you could just tune your car to a radio station and listen to that band’s music? Or perhaps you see the poster on the side of a bus stop. What if it could send your smartphone a link for discounted tickets or give you directions to the venue?

Going further, imagine you go for a run, and your shirt can sense your perspiration and send data on your vital signs directly to your phone.

A new technique pioneered by UW engineers makes these “smart” posters and clothing a reality by allowing them to communicate directly with your car’s radio or your smartphone. Bus stop billboards could send digital content about local attractions. A street sign could broadcast the name of an intersection or notice that it is safe to cross a street, improving accessibility. Clothing with integrated sensors could monitor vital signs and send them to a phone.

The team has — for the first time — demonstrated how to apply a technique called “backscattering” to outdoor FM radio signals. The new system transmits messages by reflecting and encoding audio and data in these signals that are ubiquitous in urban environments, without affecting the original radio transmissions.

“What we want to do is enable smart cities and fabrics where everyday objects in outdoor environments — whether it’s posters or street signs or even the shirt you’re wearing — can ‘talk’ to you by sending information to your phone or car,” said lead faculty and UW Allen School associate professor of computer science and engineering Shyam Gollakota.