Thomas Panek of New York believes he was born to run.
The 50-year-old is an avid athlete and the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit that pairs people who are visually impaired with guide dogs. He is blind himself due to a genetic condition that completely took his sight by the time he was 20, but that hasn’t stopped him from chasing his dream of running solo!
For years, Thomas has defied expectations — and even made history — with help from human and canine running guides.
On top of completing both the New York City and Boston marathons multiple times, he became the first blind person to run the New York City Half Marathon with three alternating guide dogs in 2019!
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Even so, he always had his goals set higher. He was tired of slowing down to follow behind guides, and while dogs make great running partners, he wanted to do the impossible: run by himself.
So at a Google “hackathon” event last year, he asked programmers a powerful question: “Can technology help a blind runner navigate?” After several months of developing and prototyping, he had his answer: Yes!
Working with Thomas, the Google Research team created Project Guideline, an app that uses artificial intelligence to help blind people run independently. Users wear their smartphones facing forward, which allows the app to detect lines on the ground via the camera. The app then keeps the runners on course by sending audio signals through their headphones.
“I can hear the line in my ear, it’s like a beacon, like a lighthouse,” Thomas described.
While the app is not yet available to the public, it has already made a huge difference to Thomas! On November 19, he ran a 5K in Central Park — all on his own! With a temporary line painted along the course, he breezed through to the finish line!
“It’s a real feeling of not only freedom and independence, but also you get that sense that you’re just like anybody else,” he said. “We all want to fit in, we all want to be just like anybody else. And today, just being out there with other runners in Central Park … it was just a feeling of belonging.”
Congratulations, Thomas, your dream is now a reality! Even better, this app is going to give so many people the freedom and independence they crave. What an incredible gift!
Learn more about how Project Guideline works in the video below, and share this story to spread the word about this life-changing technology.
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