Photo: A blind runner, Mr. Misono runs along the yellow tape on the track whilst the staff accompany him.

Project Guideline: Towards helping everyone to run freely

Project Guideline is an early-stage research project exploring how Google AI can help people with visual impairments run freely by themselves.

In Japan, around 60 percent of the population exercises routinely.

However, that number drops to around 30 percent amongst people with visual impairments.

Enjoying sport and having the opportunity to participate is a right granted to everyone by law. However, this right is not always a reality for those with various disabilities. For example, the simple freedom to run alone is an almost impossible dream for those with visual impairments.

“Is there a way to use technology to enable runners with visual impairments to run by themselves?”

This question was posed to us by Thomas Panek, President and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind and accomplished marathon runner in the United States, and it became our starting point. Everyone should be able to pursue their own physical potential freely and independently. We started this experiment as the first small step toward achieving such a society.

We believe in building products that work for everyone. Making use of now widely adopted smartphones and headphones, we built the first prototypes together with Thomas and announced Project Guideline in the United States in 2020.

This year, as Parasports and sports in general gain more attention, we announced the next stage of the project in Japan. Masamitsu Misono, a technology advocate for the blind community, accomplished runner, and person who is blind totally, was our first partner, and we hope to have even more visually impaired people experience the technology to make further improvements to it.

How Project Guideline works

Project Guideline uses image recognition technology leveraging on-device machine learning that runs on Android smartphones. It identifies a colored line on the ground, determines whether the line is to the left, right or center of the runner, and sends audio signals through headphones worn by the runner. Based on that feedback, the runner can correct their running position to stay on the line and enjoy their run.
Animation showing how Project Guideline communicates to users through sound.
It’s easy for the human eye to identify a line on the road, but asking a machine to process that information is no easy task. The camera worn by the runner shakes constantly, and when outside, the direction and brightness of light changes continually. Shadows and leaves can cover the course, and even the color of the ground itself is not constant. You also have to address any curves in the course.
Animation showing how Project Guideline recognizes line directions and angles.
To make accurate decisions under these varying conditions, we developed a machine learning model that utilizes TensorFlow™, an open-source library for machine learning published by Google. We continue to work on improving the accuracy and performance of the system by gathering video data from as many situations as possible to train the model to recognize different environments. Most importantly, we recognize the importance of involving community experts in the design and engineering processes. That’s why we’re partnering with the leading organizations in the United States and Japan to get direct feedback from athletes who are blind to make the system safer and easier for users.

Seeking partners

Project Guideline is an early stage research project. Just like our initial prototypes, the future success of this project depends on close collaboration with the blind and low vision community. We are seeking companies and nonprofits to partner with us to hold technology trials and feedback events so that we can improve the app experience and to collect video data so that we can improve the machine learning model. We are also looking to work with visually impaired people who can participate in tests and provide feedback.

If you are interested, use the form below to contact us.