It's been more than a decade since I reviewed the first GPS (global positioning system) product designed for users with visual impairments. Walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood and hearing the names of the businesses I passed and the intersections I approached seemed nothing short of miraculous 10 or 15 years ago. Today, however, it's rare to find a person, blind or sighted, who doesn't own at least one way-finding device or tool for mapping directions from one point to another.
Sighted people always had the ability to look around to get their bearings, noting familiar landmarks and reading signs. For people with visual impairments, however, the concept of "looking around" was, and is, somewhat astonishing.
With a reliable GPS with braille or audio output, you can map directions for the friend giving you a lift somewhere, or access more detailed set directions for navigating new turf on foot.
For such navigation tools to work, however, your device of choice, be it a smart phone or specialty device, needs to be able to connect to satellites. You can navigate to the hotel, the doctor's office, or the shopping mall, but once inside, devices often lose contact with satellites. A solution for indoor navigation has been on the wish list of many of us for years.
Dan Roberts, founder and president of MD Support (the MD stands for macular degeneration, the disease that compromised Roberts' own eyesight 20 years ago), built a 1,000-page Internet-based support resource for people who are blind and who have low vision. He noticed that smart, competent people with vision loss would struggle for orientation information in short-term settings like conferences and seminars. Consequently, he began researching to find a solution to the indoor navigation problem.
Roberts discovered that a solution for indoor navigation had been developed and installed in train stations and other venues in some European countries. Finding your way around an enormous venue like a cruise ship, a hospital, or an Ikea store is, after all, by no means a challenge unique to blindness. In such large and complicated venues, sighted people struggle with how to find a desired destination or, for that matter, their rooms or an exit.
Indoo.rs, a mainstream way-finding company, is headquartered in Vienna, Austria, with offices in the United States and elsewhere. The company has installed a number of indoor way-finding systems. Its efforts to date, however, have focused on permanent installations that establish an indoor navigation system in a specific facility with the intention of that system being used by many over a long period of time.
On behalf of MD support, Dan Roberts approached Indoo.rs with the idea of developing a "white label" app for iPhone users with visual impairments. His primary challenge was to persuade this company to allow him to take this "technological ball" and run with it in another direction, namely installations of a temporary nature, providing indoor navigation in venues where conferences, seminars, and other special events are held that attract a number of blind and low vision people.
By no means the first attempt at developing an audio indoor navigation system for people who have visual or cognitive disabilities, LowViz Guide, the app eventually developed by Indoo.rs and MD Support, is unique in that it takes advantage of equipment many people already possess: an Apple iPhone or other iOS device.
How LowViz Guide Works
Small iBeacons, about the size of a D-cell battery, are mounted on all points to be identified within an indoor environment. Your iOS device can recognize these iBeacons via Bluetooth.
In a conference hotel, iBeacons may identify the names of meeting rooms, men's and women's rest rooms, coffee stations, ATM machines, the hotel's registration desk, and the like.
In order to identify the points that should carry iBeacons, Dan Roberts downloads a map of the venue, finds the important landmarks in advance, and records a message for each iBeacon.
After installing the LowViz Guide app on your phone, and traveling to a destination where iBeacons have been installed, you can navigate to these points. Every screen of the LowViz app has three tabs at the bottom: Map View, Categories, and Search.
If you select the Search tab, the keypad appears, including the Dictate button as in any other app. You can then type or use dictation to search for, say, "Chicago Room."
If the Chicago Room is one of the landmarks included in the mapping of this particular venue, you will then hear spoken directions, giving you a step-by-step road map for finding your desired location.
As you move toward your desired location, the phone will emit a tone, getting lower in pitch as you move closer to your destination.
Free Installations During the Pilot Phase
Although Dan Roberts says that the cost of an installation is extremely high, MD Support has received generous grants to cover all costs for initial installations. In its pilot phase, MD Support will install LowViz Guide entirely free to conferences and seminars whose organizers request it.
Its first appearance was in Atlanta, Georgia in April 2015, at a disability rights symposium. There were only about 20 people with visual impairments at this particular event, which Roberts says was ideal since the small number enabled him to work with each participant individually.
The results were more than satisfactory. Participants could stand in one location, identify a destination (even on the other side of a wall), and then use the LowViz Guide app to walk there safely and independently.
How to Test Drive the LowViz Guide App
At this writing, MD Support has made commitments to install LowViz Guide at the American Council of the Blind convention to be held in July 2015 in Dallas, Texas, and at the Guide Dogs for the Blind reunion to be held in September 2015, in Portland, Oregon.
To use the app in a venue that has a LowViz Guide installed, participants need to have an iPhone or other iOS device with the free app downloaded.
Any blind person who travels knows well the frustration and time that can go into figuring out the layout of an enormous hotel or other conference venue. The idea that we, as blind people, might now have an opportunity to show sighted participants the way to the exhibits is more than a little exhilarating.
Time and experience will tell how well this new system really works, but kudos are definitely in order to MD Support and Indoo.rs for the effort.
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