Revolutionary eAscot app guides blind marathon runners

By | 2 minute read | September 8, 2016

eAscot app helps keep blind marathon runners on course

IBM’s Bluemix Garage has designed an app to guide blind marathon runners using audio cues when they veer too far off course.

The development makes a welcome addition to other technical aids for blind elite athletes ahead of this year’s Paralympics, such as ‘Blind Cap’, a swim cap that vibrates when it is time for swimmers to make a turn.

A team from IBM’s new London working space has been collaborating closely with Simon Wheatcroft, an ultra-marathon runner who is registered legally blind, to develop the app.

Simon not only runs marathons (an epic feat in itself, especially for those of us who shudder at the prospect of a 5k) – he runs them solo. So it’s really important that any technical guidance he uses can cope with unfamiliar routes and obstacles.

An app that works like a guide dog

In daily life, Simon is guided by his lovable dog, Ascot. But for high speeds maintained over long distances, he needed something else – until recently, the Runkeeper app, which memorises landmarks along a particular route and uses these to track his position.

That’s pretty great, especially as the app becomes more precise each time the same course is run. But what if you don’t want to, or can’t, run the same course over? In an ultra-marathon, not only are there huge numbers of landmarks to memorise, but it’s unlikely that any runner would be happy to retrace their steps again and again in order to help retain route information. Particularly when your next challenge is to run several hundred kilometers across scorching desert.

The new app, which is named eAscot (after Simon’s guide dog), uses a combination of satellite navigation and sensors similar to those for reverse-parking your car.

By means of coordinates, eAscot plots an optimal route, and alerts Simon through a series of short beeps if he veers too far off course. One pitch means ‘you’re too far to the right’, and another means too far to the left.

Adapting for difficult terrain

Simon’s most recent challenge was a six-day series of long distance runs in the Namibian desert. Spanning 250 kilometers in total, each day included a long-distance race on difficult terrain, in blistering heat.

Undertaking something of this magnitude is phenomenally draining, both physically and mentally. It doesn’t leave a runner much head space for constantly reacting to audio alerts to fine-tune their position en route. Not when you’re also dealing with dehydration, exhaustion and blisters. So the team at Bluemix designed eAscott to allow for small course deviations so that Simon could concentrate on what’s most important – keeping going. They also opted for beeps rather than synthesized speech to avoid information over-load.

Learning from the run

While Simon is running, the app collects data that can be analyzed and fed back to him once he has finished. He can then use this information to learn about his running speed, stride length and distance covered.

CNBC interviewed Simon and Holly Cummins, technical lead at IBM’s Bluemix Garage, to find out more about the app. Check out the video to see Simon and eAscot in action!