GPS systems have become so advanced they can easily and accurately provide location and navigation instructions with little difficulty when traveling outdoors. When navigating indoors, however, these systems are of little use. There have been many attempts to produce an indoor navigation system for people with vision loss. In many cases, these projects never leave the prototype stage, so there are currently very few options for indoor navigation on the market. The Aware app is a new indoor navigation solution from Sensible Innovations. To learn more about the app's development, I spoke with Rasha Said, the founder of Sensible Innovation and the mind behind the Aware app. At the end of this article, you'll also get a user's perspective on the app from Albert Rizzi of My Blind Spot.
The Aware App
The Aware app is an indoor navigation app for iOS and Android. The app can be downloaded free on both platforms and is one part of the overall system. To assist users in navigating indoors, the Aware app connects to specially configured iBeacons that provide position information while indoors. iBeacon technology was developed by Apple and uses Bluetooth Low Energy to alert capable devices of the beacons' locations; the beacons can also send information to a user's device. iBeacons are traditionally used to send advertisements and promotions to user's devices, but the Aware app has made use of their capabilities to provide proximity-based information and detailed navigation instructions. With the Aware app active, nearby beacons will communicate with the app, which will then alert users to the closest beacon. Essentially, the app uses beacons to provide information regarding nearby points of interest, essentially serving as an audible sign. The app can also provide step-by-step instructions to move from one location to another. The app gives the user instructions in segments. For example, once the user selects a destination, the app will say something like: "Move forward past the store on your right and turn left at the corner." When the app detects a beacon at the corner, the next segment of the instructions would be provided. In this way, the app can provide the user with navigation instructions based on where they are in real time.
Interview with Rasha Said
NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A. Preece: Could you tell me a little about yourself, your background, and any development you've done in the past?
R. Said: I have a Bachelor of Science in mathematics and a Master's in Business Administration with a concentration in finance. I also have a minor in computer science in my undergrad. I worked as an actuary and I passed a few exams in the actuary of science exams. So I was working as an actuary analyst and financial analyst for a while. Working a lot on financial models and databases. I did some programming but not apps but I have good exposure and good hands on experience reading code. I actually quit my job last November. I did not develop the Aware app myself—I did not code it, I commissioned a software company…LRS [to do so].
AP: What gave you the idea to develop the Aware app?
RS: I have a son who is legally blind. … He is thriving; he is all honors, a very smart person. The thing we always struggle with is when we go places, there's no way to accommodate how he gets the information we get through signs. So, that's how this whole thing started. … I believe in technology; I believe in wireless technology. I know my son uses the iPhone. We get printed signs, how can I get that to him in audio? So, I start searching. That was actually three years ago before even iBeacons were out. [When] they started announcing iBeacons, that these are electronic tags that you can put in place and push advertisements to your phone, and the phone can detect them, I thought that's it, that's what I'm looking for. All I would need is to go and program an app that tells me about the place instead of giving me a coupon. We ended up creating the front end and the back end. Other companies who are trying to use the iBeacon for the same purpose are not doing that. But we created the whole solution.
AP: What are Aware's capabilities and how does a user interact with the app?
RS: You download it free from the App Store or Google Play. In the roaming mode, you just slip your phone in your pocket and Aware will recite the names of the places you pass by as you walk. Now if you're interested in one of the points of interest, there is a More Info button at the top right [that] will give you more information about the place. So, let's say I'm walking in the mall, and let's say the app says "Gap." When I push the More Info button it will say "Gap is a clothing store" and it will give me a simple layout description. The description may include where the cashier is, it may tell me that the boy's section is on the right and maybe there's an escalator. It's not an obstacle-avoiding app by any means… It's meant more for information than anything else. If there is a promo, you'll hear the promo through the "More Info" button as well; like if there is a sales offer or anything like that.
The Take Me To button on the main screen is a navigation feature. I'm at Gap, and now I want to go to somewhere else in the mall. If you're at a certain location, push Take Me To and it will list everything at that site. It will pop up a directory and then I can scroll through the list, or I can skip through the list by category. I'll select my destination and then it will automatically tell me the first segment. Like it will say, "Keep Gap on your right, continue straight, passing Vale's Jewelers" for example, "and then turn right at the hallway intersection." Once I reach Vale's there's another beacon that will catch me. The app will announce Vale's, so now you know that at least you're on the expected path and then it will give me the next turn. All of this is information that we put in our back end system. There is a Map button that allows me to upload a map, a visual map, as well. What I do is take the map to a graphic designer, and I enhance it, Make it bold, stuff like that. There is a Directory button that allows you to pick another point of interest, different from your current location, from a list and read More Info [about that selected location]. Now these three buttons…pop up whenever you are close to a beacon. Another three buttons on the main screen are more manual [because] if you are not next to a beacon, and the app cannot detect your current location, you will lose those three, automatic button options. [So] if you are outside or if you are away from a beacon, [you can still] navigate the place manually and learn about it. So the app has six buttons, three that pop up when a beacon is detected…and three that are always there. [One of those buttons is Venues.] It will list all the venues that have Aware, and [you can] choose a venue, and choose a directory, and it will guide you through more menus. [It's included because] I think that sometimes people like to learn about a venue before they go.
AP: Do you have any plans for the future of the Aware app, any features you want to add?
RS: There is actually another app I am working on, a visual one that will be out very soon, that pulls information from the same back end system. This is coming very soon, maybe next month. You can look at the map visually, you can see the routes visually, stuff like that. Same descriptions, same stuff. I'm trying to get a do-it-yourself packet, with a very easy user interface on the back end that's accessible so you can be your own advocate, buy your beacons, and make your own route. It could be for Orientation and Mobility teachers, or for a small area, or to let students learn their schedule. It could be for a mom who would want to put them in a few places for her child; a do-it-yourself sort of packet to make it easy to deploy a few beacons.
AP: If an organization wanted to set up this system, what would that process be like?
RS: Typically, what I ask for is the floor plan…and the functions of the place. If there is a big ballroom that only has one function, you only need one beacon, but if the ballroom has booths, now I need several beacons since I want [to provide information for] each booth. At the beginning I can give an estimate just by looking at the floor plan and the exits and the stairs, elevators, all of which should be covered by beacons. Then we'll either meet or do conferences, and exchange information through e-mail that I need to put in the system. [Finally,] I'll take the beacons on site and place them,…test them, and make sure all the information is in [the system]. So it's like a three-step process. We give each venue their own log in credentials so they can log into the system. They log into their own venue and they can change the information. … I do the initial setup to help the venue and then we train them on how to use the software on the back end.
User Thoughts on the Aware App: Albert Rizzi
Albert Rizzi, who you may remember from his previous interview in the June 2014 issue of AccessWorld has provided his thoughts on the Aware app:
A. Preece: Where do you make use of the Aware app?
A. Rizzi: My first experience using the app was at the CSUN conference. It was wonderful to be aware of my surroundings and know what booth I was walking up to or even walking past for that matter. The app provided information on each vendor, which helped me to determine, independently, if I wanted to stop and learn more about the products or offerings at the booth. Too often, I am always asking what you do, or what company is at this booth. Knowing in advance is a much better way to navigate a conference floor, and I am looking forward to the day this becomes the norm rather than a happenstance. I can see how valuable this would be in an airport, a shopping mall or even a museum amongst other public forums.
AP: Which features have been the most useful to you?
RS: The most useful features are the announcements of the booths or locations I am walking by. Being totally blind, I know I am missing a wealth of possibilities [because I'm] not getting a visual or audible cue about what is around me. [The Aware app] just eliminates all of that and puts the information I need in the palm of my hand. [It] opens up a world of possibilities for me to consider as I walk through a hotel, a conference, and any indoor forum.
AP: How do you interact with the app? Braille display, VoiceOver, voice command?
AR:I use VoiceOver since I am totally blind. I am still trying to find the right amount of information or verbosity, as well as learning how to manipulate the app as seamlessly as I need to. Learning how to use the app is no different than when I had to learn how to use the iPhone.
AP: Has the app changed the way that you travel in inside spaces?
AR: It absolutely has. Being able to know, without depending on others, in advance, or even in hindsight, what storefronts or vendor tables I am approaching or passing[…]opens up a world of possibilities that directly impacts my independence and confidence to navigate large public forums that are currently such daunting undertakings. In the past, I would rely on the kindness of others to alert me to what vendors or offerings were on the floor, and now I am able to choose, with complete confidence and independence, to walk the floor of any conference or convention where the Aware app is being used.
AP: Are there any features that you would like to see in future releases?
AR: I would need to think about that since I am still processing the current wonders that it holds for my independence. But if anything comes to mind I will be sure to share my thoughts and suggestions with Rasha. [Having] an option for searching what is around would be a great feature without question. I can see the potential marketing options here for places like restaurants or retailers alerting the user to sales or even inviting them into their store or restaurant. Sort of like a virtual visual reminder or alert to what is around you.
The Bottom Line
As it has been described, the Aware app could be an excellent solution to provide indoor navigation to people with vision loss. Rasha Said has made the effort to make the app as user friendly and intuitive as possible, and the use of iBeacons allow for unobtrusive setup in many locations.
- LowViz Guide: Indoor Navigation for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired by Deborah Kendrick
- BeSpecular: A New Remote Assistant Service by Bill Holton
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