How Google’s Project Guideline Technology Helped A Blind Runner Gain ‘The Freedom To Run Solo’

Thomas Panek, President and CEO of Guiding Eyes For The Blind Guiding Eyes For The Blind In a blog post published last week, Google shared a first-person account by Thomas Panek on using Google’s Project Guideline technology to help him better pursue his passion for running. An avid runner, Panek, […]

In a blog post published last week, Google shared a first-person account by Thomas Panek on using Google’s Project Guideline technology to help him better pursue his passion for running. An avid runner, Panek, who is blind, has completed more than twenty marathons, including five Boston Marathons. Last year, he became the first blind runner to complete the New York City Half Marathon guided entirely by dogs. Panek is president and CEO at Guiding Eyes For The Blind. The organization helps people with vision loss access resources such as orientation & mobility training, guide dogs, and more. “[We] work tirelessly to help people with vision loss receive running guide dogs that can help them live more active and independent lives,” he wrote.

Project Guideline is a Google Research initiative, a group that tinkers with how technology can improve peoples’ daily lives. The company describes Project Guideline in particular as technology that “leverages on-device machine learning to allow [a person] to use a phone, headphones, and a guideline painted on the ground to run independently.” The project’s name is derived from the term for markings on streets.

Early prototypes, Panek said in his essay, involved wearing a smartphone via waistband and a pair of bone-conducting headphones. Using the phone’s camera, it would sense whether he veered too far to one side and subsequently send audio signals to alert him of his positioning. Later testing would take into account variables such as weather and lighting conditions, as the data model needed further training. Building the on-device machine learning model took “months,” Panek said.

Panek put the technology to an even bigger test when he ran in the New York Road Runners’ (NYRR) Run for Thanks 5K. The event took place in New York City’s Central Park, along a temporary line painted in the park.

Panek is thankful that an idea that grew out of a Google hackathon last year has become a vehicle for pursuing a passion.

“Collaborating on this project helped me realize a personal dream of mine,” he said. “I’m so grateful to the Google team, and whoever came up with the idea of a hackathon in the first place. I hope there will be more runs with Project Guideline in my future, and for many other runners as well.”

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