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Seeing-eye and navigation technologies mean more freedom for the blind

A hand-held device that reads GPS signals, and one with a mini-camera, promise big advances.

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Keep your seeing-eye dog. And don't leave your cane behind. But as of next spring, if you're blind, they're not your only options for street-finding - or even restaurant menu-reading.

Last month, the European Space Agency and ONCE, Spain's national organization for the blind, teamed up to unveil the prototype of a new GPS device called Tormes, which will help users pinpoint locations or navigate unknown areas within six feet of accuracy. Equipped with a braille keyboard, a GPS receiver, and a voice synthesizer, the hand-held device will weigh less than two pounds and can be carried over the shoulder.

Though Tormes has its limitations - designers say alone, it will not be exact enough to direct users to a doorway or mailbox - it represents a significant advance over current GPS-based systems for the blind, which are accurate to between 15 and 20 yards and don't work when the signals are blocked by tall buildings. While that degree of exactitude enables a blind person to cross a major street, they say, the Tormes system - which receives GPS signals via the wireless Internet - could help them determine which pavement they're on.

What's more, the new system's web connection promises users an unprecedented degree of autonomy. With it they will be able not only to find restaurants, but to hear their menus read.

"Wireless access will translate to downloads as a person walks through town," says Richard Long, an orientation and mobility specialist at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. "It will not only tell him/her where things are, but also that the Big Macs are on sale on Tuesday."

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