Bill Holton

Remember the first time you went to the airport alone? Somehow you made it to the ticket counter, where they summoned a helpful assistant who gave you a choice: Ride in a wheelchair to your gate, despite the fact that you have two perfectly operational feet, or ride on the “ding-ding” machine, traveling approximately two miles an hour past the smells of coffee, Cinnabon’s, and all sorts of other treats you can’t stop to enjoy. And heaven forbid you should have to use the restroom.

These days, using GPS navigation and one of many accessible wayfinding apps, it’s not only possible but relatively easy to find and catch a bus or rideshare downtown, reorient yourself, and use a cane or guide dog to make your way to the front steps of City Hall, the local science museum, or the airport.

Of course all of this accessible navigation usually ends at the front door of your destination, and you either have to memorize ahead of time the route you need to take or ask for help getting around inside. GPS signals don’t travel well inside buildings and, even if they did, without adequate mapping the signals are all but worthless.

A Brief History of Indoor Wayfinding

Over the years there have been many attempts and approaches to offer indoor wayfinding. “One of the very first involved dead reckoning,” says Mike May, founder of Sendero Group, one of the first developers of accessible navigation and wayfinding. “You would start from a known position, and then your steps would be tracked using a compass and your position updated.” According to May, “the trouble with this system was that you needed expensive, high-end compasses, and any errors were magnified the further you traveled.”

Other indoor wayfinding efforts were made using broadcast radio and TV signals, Wi-Fi signals, RFID chips, and even unique optical signals emitted by florescent light tube ballasts.

One of the first real breakthroughs in indoor wayfinding came with the arrival of iBeacons from Apple. The beacons transmit an RF signal that apps can use to determine location and other information via Bluetooth. “We had great hopes we could piggyback on these signals and use them to help map indoor spaces.” says May. Unfortunately, beacons have yet to reach the necessary critical mass of popularity. “McDonald’s did not broadcast $1 burgers to people walking past the store, and when I visited an Apple store, none of the employees even knew how they worked,” says May. “The public wasn’t asking for them, so venues and companies were reluctant to make the investment.”

According to May, two of the beacons strengths also turned out to be two of their greatest weaknesses. “They are small, inexpensive, and battery powered, so they don’t need a nearby power source. Also, the technology is still evolving at a rapid pace.” May works remotely from his home in Wichita, where three years ago the city installed five hundred beacons marking bus stops. “Now, three years along, the batteries are running down, and the question is, do they replace the batteries or update to newer technology beacons, and if they do, do they stick with batteries or spend the extra money for direct power connections?”

It’s not uncommon for technology originally introduced to the public at large to become modified and made accessible to those with visual impairments. GPS navigation itself was such a technology, as are the accessible computers and smartphones most of us rely on for our education and employment. But it also works the other way around. A technology or modification originally designed for the disabled turns out to offer value to the general population. Curb cuts originally introduced for wheelchair users are loved by parents pushing strollers. Computer dictation was a godsend to people suffering from repetitive stress injuries, but these days it’s everywhere, as are text-to-speech and optical character recognition technologies, both of which were originally developed for the benefit of the blind.

Access Explorer: Indoor Wayfinding Centered on Serving the Needs of People with Visual Impairments

Since the early attempts at wayfinding beacons didn't inspire public demand, a number of companies and entrepreneurs began coming at the problem from the opposite, more traditional direction: developing the technology for people with visual impairments and then seeing where things went. This is why the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) recently spun out its Nearby Explorer assets into a new for-profit company called Access Explorer.

“Our goal is to make indoor wayfinding both cheaper and more available for the blind, while at the same time offering value to the sighted community as well,” says May, who recently joined the Access Explorer team as Chief Evangelist.

The company now offers to map and tag indoor venues, such as airports, government buildings, and other facilities where accessibility is a mandated concern. “Hopefully, other places will begin to see the benefits and begin offering wayfinding also,” says May, who notes that the blind aren’t the only ones who might need to know where the nearest bathroom is located, or how to get from here to Gate 25 in the airport. After that, it’s just a matter of a few small steps from “Siri, where is baggage claim" to "Siri, where in this store can I find that set of towels that I heard is on sale?”

As part of their investment, APH has transferred their Nearby Explorer and the free Nearby Explorer Online to the new startup. Already it includes indoor wayfinding where available. One of the new company’s pilot projects is at the Louisville Airport. You can take a virtual tour right now. See the end of this article for instructions.

Working Towards Consistency in Indoor Wayfinding

There are several different companies working on indoor wayfinding, including Blindsquare, a popular wayfinding app for the blind that also offers indoor navigation for several airports and other facilities where beacons have been installed and properly tagged. Hoping to avoid inconsistencies across different systems and apps, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) recently released a set of best-practices and voluntary standards for the implementation of this technology to guide app developers and owners of indoor locations such as airports, railway stations, convention centers and museums.

“The CTA standard will help us create the same set of audio instructions for accessing a metro train or bus whether the individual is in Washington, DC or Los Angeles,” says David Shaffer, access policy officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and member of the committee that established the guidelines.

The complete standard is available for free on the CTA site.

Take a Virtual Indoor Tour of the Louisville Airport Using Nearby Explorer

You can use the free Nearby Explorer Online app for either iOS or Android to take a virtual indoor tour of the Louisville airport. With the app installed, follow these steps:

  1. Open Nearby Explorer Online In Settings, set your Search Provider to OpenStreetMap. Make sure you have downloaded the area you want to virtually explore in the OpenStreeMap Manager under Settings. For the Louisville Airport, you will need to download Kentucky.
  2. Search for "Louisville International Airport." If you are more than 30 miles away, you need to search for the address: 600 Terminal Dr, Louisville, KY.
  3. Select the Airport Terminal
  4. In the pop-up menu, select "Virtual Go To"
  5. Search again
  6. On the Search screen, use the up escalator icon (top right) to go up a level
  7. Go up another level to get to level 1
  8. Select an interesting POI or Point of Interest (such as the Main Entrance)
  9. In the pop-up menu, select "Virtual Go To" At this point, you are in virtual mode at the front entrance to the Airport. You can use the GeoBeam feature to identify nearby POIs. Hold your phone sideways, with the screen facing your left side and the back of your phone facing your right side, and the top of the phone pointing in the direction you want to explore. As you swivel around, you will hear announcements about the POIs you are pointing at.

According to Access Explorer CEO Jose Gaztambide, “We are planning to release a new, free indoor navigation application by the end of 2019 that builds on many of the accomplishments of Nearby Explorer. Most notably, the application will provide turn-by-turn navigation for indoor spaces, integrating a ‘human-in-the-loop’ component to provide live assistance. It will take advantage of additional signals such as phone sensors and Wi-Fi signals in the positioning algorithm to offer more accurate localization and positioning. The new application will also feature a more friendly interface for both sighted and non-sighted users, and an easier learning curve for both outdoor and indoor wayfinding.”

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Bill Holton
Article Topic
Access Issues