Blind man, 'born to run,' completes solo 5K with trial app to guide him

·1-min read
Thomas Panek, a blind runner and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, gets ready for a 5K run in Central Park where he will use Google's "Guideline" app instead of help from a human or guide dog, in New York
Thomas Panek, a blind runner and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, gets ready for a 5K run in Central Park where he will use Google's "Guideline" app instead of help from a human or guide dog, in New York

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A blind man completed a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run in New York's Central Park without a guide dog or human help this week. His navigation aid? Artificial intelligence through headphones plugged into a smartphone.

"The safest thing for a blind man is to sit still. I ain't sitting still," said Thomas Panek, 50, who lost his vision in his early 20s due to a genetic condition and runs Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a guide dog school.

The marathon enthusiast got tired of having to follow slower runners as a guide. So he decided a year ago to find a way to run solo.

He turned to Google to find a way for a phone to "tell me where to go," said Panek, who believes "humans are born to run."

He worked with the Alphabet Inc unit to create a research program. A smartphone camera picks up a painted 'guideline' on a running track. An app detects the runner's position and gives audio guidance through an earpiece.

"It's like teaching a kid how to learn where the line is," said Google researcher Xuan Yang.

Pandemic-related social distancing gave a boost to the research to circumvent human and canine helpers.

"To be able to be here, it's real emotional," Panek said after his test of the app on a chilly fall afternoon, in an event sponsored by Google and the New York Road Runners Club on Thursday.

"It's a real feeling of not only freedom and independence, but also, you know, you get that sense that you're just like anybody else."

(This story corrects headline to remove reference to 'marathon')

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Richard Chang and Rosalba O'Brien)