Blind runner completes solo 5k guided by AI

This blind runner worked with Google to develop an app that lets him run without the help of humans or guide dogs.

A blind man completed a solo 5-kilometre run in New York’s Central Park with the help of a smartphone and an algorithm.

Thomas Panek is the 50-year old CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a school that trains guide dogs to assist the vision-impaired.

After years of either sitting out physical activity or leaning on guides as a result of his own blindness, Panek decided a year ago it was time to try and find a way to run solo.

“I’m a runner, and I did stop running for a long time, for a lot of years because I was afraid to run, I was afraid I was going to run into something,” Panek said. “I was running the Chicago Marathon with partial vision. I ran right into a post and I said, that’s it, I’m not running any more.”

Panek depended on guide dogs or human guides to help him run marathons.

Now he is working with Google to develop a smartphone app that guides him.

“I can hear the line in my ear, it’s like a beacon, like a lighthouse,” Panek explains. “I can hear it now telling me to go back to the right. It’s like a sound tunnel if you can imagine. If I turn off the line, ‘stop stop stop’, a human voice comes into my ears, telling me that I immediately need to stop because it’s lost the ability to see.”

The app works on a regular Android phone using its camera to detect the line and sends audio prompts through headphones to guide the runner and keep them on course.

“We started trying to see if I could just walk a taped line and have the phone kind of tell me where to go,” Panek explains. “And from that concept, from the idea, we decided that we were going to give it a shot.”

Google calls the project “Guideline” and says it uses artificial intelligence to recognise lines in different locations.

Researchers hope the technology will eventually be widely available.

This video was edited by Al Jazeera Newsfeed’s Hassan Ghani.