Thomas Panek was born with vision, but his sight began to fade until he was declared legally blind in his younger years. He’s an avid runner and has run with human guides and often runs with his guide dog. Panek said that he enjoyed both forms of running but wanted more independence.
In the fall of 2019, he asked a group of designers and technologists at a Google hackathon if it was possible to guide a blind runner independently. Panek says he only expected a conversation, but by the end of the day, the group had built a rough demo that allowed a phone to recognize a line taped to the ground and provide audio cues while walking with Blaze (his dog).
The group wanted to see if they could turn the rough demo into something more. For the concept, Panek would wear a phone on a waistband along with bone-conducting headphones. The camera inside the phone would look for a physical guideline on the ground and send audio signals depending on his position.
The system would create an audio tone if he drifted to the left of the line. In that instance, the sound will get louder in his left ear. If he drifted to the right, the sound would get louder in his right ear. After a few months of testing, Panek and the team were ready to test it on an indoor oval track. He says after a few adjustments, he was able to run eight laps on the track solo. He noted that he did have Google teammates nearby, but it was the first unguided mile he had run in decades.
He says that the next step was to see if the tech would work outdoors in the park, his preferred running location. Running in the park brings lots more challenges with variables and weather and lighting conditions and the need for new data to train the model. The team spent months working on an on-device machine learning model that could detect the guideline in different environments. The system functioned as expected, allowing him to run without a guide of any kind. In the future, he plans to run at the NYRR Virtual Run for Thanks 5K using a line temporarily painted in Central Park in New York City.