Equipped with headphones and a headband with a GPS receiver, visually impaired Johan Pettersson can run alone at the Campus Valla athletics arena in Linköping. A ticking sound signals whether he is on the right track and he can also input information such as “the curve starts in 20 metres”.
– It’s a sense of freedom to be able to move on your own, without depending on others. For those who can handle digital technology, it’s a giant step towards being able to play sports, exercise and move around independently,” says Johan Pettersson, ombudsman at the National Federation of the Visually Impaired in Östergötland.
The system was developed by Olle Axelsson at Nordic Evolution.
– It all started when a friend and I were watching the Paralympics a few years ago and discussed the idea of replacing a physical guide with a digital companion in certain situations. For example, when Paralympian Zebastian Molin is cross-country skiing, the guide Emil Jönsson basically shouts out what’s going on. We thought it could be done in a smarter way,” says Olle Axelsson.
That was the starting point for developing the digital guidance system that Linköping has now purchased for its athletics arena. The system works by first walking the track and programming the route.
Johan Pettersson was there when the system was tested at a small ski competition last winter with five participants, all of whom were visually impaired.
– It was fun to ski again, I hadn’t been on a pair of skis for 15 years. You had to choose between skiing one or five laps, and I’m a bit of a competitor, so I decided to do five laps,” says Johan Pettersson, who is also a national team player in goalball, a ball sport for the visually impaired.
Before the race, information had been entered, such as whether there was an uphill or downhill ahead and the gradient of the slopes. To be on the safe side, a person rode alongside to warn of things the system doesn’t detect, such as skiers on the track.
Johan Pettersson explains that he was born prematurely and has always had impaired vision. As a child he had 10 percent vision, but by the age of 19 he had lost all his sight.
– When you can’t see anything at all, you learn a certain track so I can find my way from the gate where I live to the garbage room and to the bus. Then there are probably benches, a barbecue area and flower arrangements. But I don’t know where they are, it’s a white sheet,” he says.
Even in town, he has learned his way from the bus to the supermarket or the gym.
– It takes a lot of time and energy to learn these routes and if you get just a little bit wrong, you’re completely lost. Then I become very dependent on a guide. I’ve tried walking with the digital guide in town too and it’s a feeling of freedom to be able to walk like anyone else,” says Johan Pettersson.
Andreas Hagström, sports development manager at the culture and leisure office in Linköping, was one of the first municipalities in Sweden to buy the system, and he dares to call it “unique in the world”.
– Linköping municipality has a sports policy programme called “Active throughout life” and part of it is to make physical activity accessible to more people. That’s the main reason we’ve chosen to invest in this system,” he says.
On Sunday, the system will be inaugurated at a Parasport Day in Linköping.
Behind the technology is a Linköping company that has developed a system where visually impaired people can follow a digital path. The path is pre-programmed and the wireless headphones transmit audio instructions that tell the user how to move.
-It’s up to the user how they want to use the technology. For example, you can walk, run or cross-country ski,” says Olle Axelsson, developer at Nordic evolution.
Johan Pettersson lost his sight when he was 19. Today, he can’t see at all and is often dependent on a carer.
-Now I can exercise more freely. It was a bit difficult at first, but now it’s fine,” he says.
– The technology consists of three components – wireless open-ear headphones where you can hear both the sound signals and your surroundings, a mobile phone with Wi-Fi, and a GPS device worn in a specially designed headband, says Olle Axelsson, who has developed the guide system in his company Nordic Evolution in Linköping, Sweden.
A visually impaired person largely needs a companion to move around in unfamiliar surroundings, and for most people running is out of the question without physical assistance. But with new technology, the practitioner can play sports all by himself, with the help of a digital escort.
If you start to move too far to the right of the programmed route, a signal is heard in the right earpiece, which then decreases in strength as you get closer to the centre again. A variety of settings can be made, such as hearing instructions before a turn, what sound to play, or under what conditions the system will react.
– The feeling is one of freedom. When you can’t see, you often have to rely on other people to get you out and about in unfamiliar surroundings. Escorts are required. This is a system that allows you to have a greater sense of freedom on your own. And we should certainly not do away with physical assistance, because that is still the basis. But a system like this can definitely be a complement for people who can handle digital technology,” says Johan Petterssom, who is blind and has helped as a reference during the development of the product.
– This is an investment that we are making in accordance with the municipality’s sports policy programme, which among other things will lead to greater inclusion and more people being able to practise sport. It will not cost the practitioner anything to use the technology itself, says Andreas Hagström, who is the sports development manager in Linköping municipality.
– I hope that municipalities and others will buy this kind of equipment just as they order bandy goals or similar,” says Olle Axelsson.
The technology has been showcased in various contexts during 2022. Linköping municipality will be the first in the world to purchase and offer visually impaired citizens to use the equipment. The municipality is making an investment of approximately SEK 65,000, which is included in the budget for development funds related to sports.
Two associations will be trained to manage the system and welcome visually impaired people who want to exercise under their auspices: the Linköping Parasport Association and Linköping Athletics (LGIF).
– During the autumn there will be try-out activities, for example in connection with the Stångåloppet race in Linköping on 25 September,” concludes Andreas Hagström.