Google Maps Offers Voice Guidance for Visually Impaired Users

Google Maps has recently introduced a new feature for visually impaired users (blind or partially sighted people). Maps now offers more detailed voice guidance than before, with verbal cues to make navigating with limited vision much easier.

“Going somewhere new can be a challenge – you have to cross many new streets, navigate intersections that are often busy and potentially dangerous. You may miss turn-offs; you may even get lost!” Explains Leila Aniya, a special education teacher at Writinity and LastMinuteWriting

 Now, imagine you are one of the 36 million people in the world who are blind, or the 217 million people who have a visual impairment. Even simple journeys are instantly more challenging for the visually impaired, and although familiar trips are easy, like from our home to the office, going somewhere strange can be intimidating and even scary. 

Google’s new feature helps visually impaired people know they are on the right route and to know when they are approaching a turn – it also lets them know if they are approaching an intersection, and alerts them if they leave the route. 

The app update has been built with Google employee Wakana Sugiyama, ‘from the ground up, by and for people with vision impairments.’ Sugiyama is visually impaired herself, and works for Google as a Business Analyst in the Online Partnerships Group. She worked with the Maps team to advise on the new features and to test early versions herself. 

In a blog post, Sugiyama noted that she can navigate the streets of Tokyo with a lot more comfort and confidence. As she goes on her journey, Google Maps proactively lets her know that she’s on the correct route, what the distance is to her next turn, and what direction she is walking in. As she approaches larger intersections, she gets a heads-up to cross with added caution. Similarily, if she accidentally leaves her route, she receives a spoken notification she is being re-routed. All of these features make her, and she hopes, other visually impaired people, feel a great deal more confident about making journeys around cities. 

The update was released in October 2019, starting on Android and iOS systems. It’s currently available in English and Japanese, but is being translated into other languages soon. 

Once installed, the app feature is enabled by going into the settings options in Google Maps, choosing Navigation, finding the Walking Options header, and enabling Detailed Voice Guidance. 

As Sugiyama noted, the update gives visually impaired people a great degree more freedom and confidence wherever they are going. They can also be used by people who want a more screen-free experience walking to their next destination – it’s an update for everyone! It’s a bit like being on a bus or tram and receiving audio notifications of when to get off. Of course, not everyone wants this kind of guidance, but it’s great to have the option. 

Google has also released another feature for users with vision impairments – an automated image descriptions feature for the internet browser Google Chrome. Using machine learning, this update describes with an image depicts and describes this to the user via screen reader or Braille display. This massively improves the experience of the internet for the visually impaired, allowing them to see images that have previously been inaccessible to them – given that online content is largely visual! 

It’s a step in the right direction by tech companies! These updates come in lieu of World Sight Day, which is observed annually on the second Thursday of October. The intent of World Sight Day is to draw attention to blindness and vision impairment, and was originally initiated by the SightFirstCampaign of Lions Club International Foundation in 2000. Since then, it has been integrated into Vision 2020 and the World Health Organization. The theme for 2014 was ‘No More Avoidable Blindness.’

“It’s great to see tech companies paying more and more attention to physically impaired users, and using technology to combat the difficulties they face. We hope to see more updates like this in the future. The possibilities, when we use technology to make life easier for disabled users, are endless!” Says Alecia Watt, a tech writer at DraftBeyond and Researchpapersuk.