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American researchers have developed a Bluetooth-based system which would allow blind people to hear information about their immediate surroundings in the same way that others read posters, signs or notices.

The "Talking Points" system was developed at the University of Michigan, and will be presented at international conferences in the UK and Korea next week.

"Talking Points can be viewed as a first step in the direction of an audio virtual reality designed for people with blindness and very useful to the sighted community as well," according to James Knox of the U Mich electrical engineering and computer science department.

The idea is that simple bluetooth beacons, probably in "plugtop" format, could be sold for less than $20. The beacon would have a unique serial number, which would be the only information it transmitted.

The purchaser of a beacon would then be able to log into a website and input information referenced to the beacon number. This could be an advert for a business, a safety warning, a street or building name - anything. Municipal authorities, transit operators and so on could use the devices in large numbers. This being the modern day, there would probably also be user-generated content too.

Talking Points users would need a bluetooth device which also had wireless internet - a smartphone, UMPC, mini-laptop or a specialised Talking Points receiver. The device would be connected to an earpiece, either bluetooth or wired. When the device software detected a Talking Points beacon, it would look up the information on the internet and play it back through the earpiece. You'd be able to choose which kinds of beacon your system would respond to, and whether or not you wanted the user-generated comments as well as the official tags.

Early versions of Talking Points used RFID technology, but recently grad-student developers pushed for a shift to Bluetooth devices on the grounds that "everyone has them" and "RFID readers cost twice as much as my car" (according to this pdf presentation).

For now, the prototype system is using a dedicated receiver box for demonstrations. However the Talking Points team hope soon to put it onto other platforms - in particular Google's Android handset OS.

They believe that Talking Points has the edge over point-of-interest databases as used with GPS or other location-based tech. Bluetooth chips are more widespread than GPS ones, and use less power too - while location using cell masts is very imprecise. However the Talking Points crowd are looking to incorporate location-based functions in future. ®

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