I first heard about Simon Wheatcroft on one of the podcasts I subscribe to – The Digital Human. The episode was entitled Wayfinding and compared our intuitive way-finding skills to those of the digital world.
Simon’s story astounded me as he’s been blind since the age of 17 but has refused to let his lack of sight prevent him taking part in his great passion for running. He still remembers the day he planned to take his girlfriend up a mountain and propose.
We started out and we got lost, which stumped me because my girlfriend can see and, you know, it’s a mountain…
But as rain made the unstable terrain even more dangerous they decided that they had to turn back. This may have been the smart decision Wheatcroft admits, but from then on he vowed never to give up again. Through the aid of a smartphone and the feeling underfoot, he learnt to run solo outdoors and ran his first race just seven months later – a 100 mile ultramarathon.
He started with a football field and the Runkeeper app on his smartphone. This gave him audio feedback on distance and pace and he managed to run a mile. But then he ran into difficulty, pardon the pun, as dogwalkers presumed he could see and he presumed they would move.
His next step was to run along a closed off road. By feeling the double yellow lines beneath his feet Wheatcroft could keep himself on track, and he started thinking about what he could achieve mixing this tactile feedback with Runkeeper’s audio information.
From then on he has gone from strength to strength, running marathons around the world and even attempting the 150 mile ultra-marathon across the desert in Namibia. This desert run was to prove a particular challenge and a smartphone app was developed for him by IBM Blumix Garage to help keep him on course. The app is a cross between satellite navigation and the sensors in cars used for reversing. If Simon vears right or left off the track he is following he’ll hear a high or a low pitched beep.
For me, the technology has solved the navigation point… that’s done… so now it’s a case of putting all the other pieces together and making sure we get across the desert
Unfortunately Simon managed almost 100 miles into the desert race before having to pull out because of the terrain and extreme heat.