Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

Google Maps adds voice to help visually impaired

Steve Rogerson
October 29, 2019

Google is helping visually impaired people find their way round cities more detailed voice guidance and verbal announcements on Google Maps.
“Think about the last time you walked to a new place,” said Wakana Suglyama, a business analyst with Google’s online partnership group and a legally blind woman living in Tokyo. “How many streets did you cross to get there? Which intersections were the most complex? How did you prepare before making a turn? And how did you know you weren’t lost? Now think about making that same trip if you were one of the 36 million people who are blind worldwide or one of the 217 million people more who have moderate-to-severe vision impairments.”
She said in Tokyo she could easily commute from her front door to her desk at work as it was a trip she took regularly and knew well.
“But going some place new and unfamiliar can be an intimidating experience without sight to guide you,” she said. “In some cases, I’ll have a friend to join me on a trip, but in others I may decide not to take the journey at all.
That is why Google Maps is rolling out a feature that gives people the ability to receive more detailed voice guidance and new types of verbal announcements for walking trips. This feature is the first in Google Maps to be built from the ground up by, and for, people with vision impairments.
“I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with the Maps team on this project as an early advisor and tester, outside of my day job as a business analyst in the Tokyo office,” she said. “With this feature, I can navigate the streets of Tokyo with more comfort and confidence. As I take my journey, Google Maps proactively lets me know that I’m on the correct route, the distance until my next turn and the direction I’m walking in. As I approach large intersections, I get a heads-up to cross with added caution. And if I accidentally leave my route, I’ll get a spoken notification that I'm being re-routed.”
Frequent updates such as these not only help a visually impaired person get from A to B, they can also give more confidence and reassurance when they travel alone.
“With detailed voice guidance in Google Maps, my journey fades into the background and I can focus more on what I’ll do at my final destination,” she said. “This may not sound extraordinary to those with sight, but for people who are blind or have low vision, this can help us explore new and unfamiliar places. I hope this new technology will give more people added confidence when navigating unfamiliar routes; after all, building for everyone is core to our work at Google.”
While this feature can be helpful to people with visual impairments, it can also help someone who wants a more screen-free experience on their next walking trip. Similar to the announcements people might hear at crosswalks or on a bus, everyone can benefit from it.
Detailed voice guidance for walking navigation has started rolling out on Android and iOS. It is available in English in the USA and Japanese in Japan, with support for additional languages and countries on the way.