TORONTO - For most of us, location-based augmented reality apps might be considered "nice to have", entertaining technology that conjures up images of last summer's Pokamon Go craze. But for blind and visually impaired people, the use of augmented reality technology in audio-based navigation apps can provide a safer and often liberating way to travel through unfamiliar streets and especially inside buildings.
That's the idea behind BlindSquare, a GPS navigation app for iPhones that provides audio descriptions of a user's surroundings, using information from open data sources such as Foursquare and Google Maps. First created in 2012 by Finnish software developer Ilkka Pirttimaa, founder and CEO of MIPsoft, BlindSquare has since added support for Apple's iBeacon technology, which extends the navigation app's audio-based accessibility feature inside buildings where GPS signals are often too weak to pinpoint locations accurately or simply drop off altogether. iBeacons are Bluetooth devices that, when installed at various points inside a building, can transmit information to BlindSquare users’ iPhones as they walk through the building, describing the location of elevators, stairs and washrooms, for example.
In the two years since BlindSquare added support for iBeacons, implementations of the indoor navigation technology have ranged from a 1.1-million-square-foot shopping mall in Helsinki, Finland, to a 200-storefront rollout in the central business district of Wellington, New Zealand (with plans to expand the project to 400 locations).
In comparison, BlindSquare indoor implementations have been on a smaller scale in Canada, where the technology has been slowly gaining traction. The two marquee implementations in Canada so far have been at the 75,000-square-foot Toronto head office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and at the 1,100-seat Sanderson Centre performing arts theatre in Brantford, Ontario.
Reached by telephone, BlindSquare's developer Ilkka Pirttimaa (pictured left, with Finnish Paralympian long jumper Ronja Oja, an early BlindSquare user) explained that part of the inspiration for extending BlindSquare to indoor environments, such as Helsinki's ITIS shopping mall, was hearing one of the app's early users express frustration that GPS doesn't work well indoors.
"It was exactly two years ago when we started working on iBeacons, and one factor there was one of my users, totally blind, said when she comes inside a shopping mall, she's blind again," Pirttimaa said. "When she's walking outdoors, she can kind of see because BlindSquare is explaining everything, but when she comes inside, when GPS stops working, she's blind again. And I wanted to solve that."
In Toronto, the CNIB's installation of almost 40 iBeacons throughout its four-storey head office has greatly improved navigation for blind visitors to the building, said David Best (right), a St. Catharines, Ontario-based accessibility IT specialist who helped with the project rollout in 2015. Best is a software engineer, whose almost 40-year career has included positions at Air Canada and IBM, and he himself is blind.
Best explained that when a client walks into CNIB's head office building on Bayview Avenue in Toronto, a welcome message is transmitted via an iBeacon in the lobby to the BlindSquare app on the user's iPhone to tell him or her where the receptionist desk and the seating lounge are. Guided via the app toward the direction of the elevator, as the visitor walks down the hall, another iBeacon will deliver an audio message to the user's smartphone indicating he or she has arrived at the elevator and which side of the hall it is on.
"As soon as I turn my phone facing the elevator, it will say the buttons are to the right of the elevator or whatever, but then it will say, ‘Scan QR code for instructions on using the elevator. BlindSquare has a QR code reader, so then if I point my phone generally at the wall, it will read a QR code and proceed to read out all the instructions. It will tell me the buttons inside the elevator are on the right or left and they are in a column, how many floors there are and what is on each floor. So before I even step in the elevator, I know basically what to expect," Best said.
In the building's cafeteria, BlindSquare users will hear a description of the layout, such as the direction of the food displays. Again, by scanning a QR code, BlindSquare will receive an audio message describing the menu and the day's special. "You need only imagine the importance of information in transportation for a person who is blind from the standpoint of joy of life or employment and the barriers of getting to those two places are significant." "So you can see that the Bluetooth beacons and the QR codes are now giving me the power to travel inside a building as I can outside the building," Best said.
MIPsoft's Canadian partner for the BlindSquare technology is Rob Nevin of U-R-Able.com, based in Guelph, Ont. Nevin explained that the BlindSquare app uses a two-layer approach to delivering location-specific information to users’ iPhones. The first layer provides a basic description of the environment, while the second layer delivers much richer information to users.
"We always deliver information in two layers. So more detailed information can be accessed simply by shaking their device, or by other means such as pressing a button on a remote-control key fob or a wired button on a headset," Nevin said.
Both Nevin and Best spoke about the liberating feeling BlindSquare users get from being able to more easily navigate the world around them. Nevin said he has heard from BlindSquare users who were formerly reclusive and lacked confidence, who now say they are more adventurous thanks to the accessible navigation app.
Blind theatregoers in the southwestern Ontario city of Brantford will find navigating the Sanderson Centre theatre easier now that several iBeacons were installed in spring 2016. Visitors with the BlindSquare app installed on their iPhones will be guided via audio to the theatre's various staircases, washrooms and two exits.
According to the Sanderson Centre's manager, Glenn Brown, the start-up costs for the BlindSquare and iBeacon implementation were about $5,000. "We currently have 18 iBeacons and we have identified a couple areas that could probably use an additional three. We just have not invested the time to make such a large adjustment to the messaging in the existing ones that would be affected by that," Brown explained.
Organizations that implement BlindSquare in conjunction with iBeacons will have access to a database stored in the cloud, where the individual audio messages associated with each installed iBeacon can be modified and updated as needed. (The annual network fee for each iBeacon is $30 per year.)
Brown recommended that any organization thinking about undertaking an indoor BlindSquare installation should bring in a consultant and get feedback from blind users to determine the best way to phrase the wording of the audio messages delivered via the iBeacons. "But I think once you get to that point and you are updating it with certain entrances being closed or a ramp not being accessible, or any of the things that you can do to keep the information current, even for small construction projects, those are certainly things that are able to be done internally. It is something I do myself, and it is actually a very simple process to do it," Brown said.
However, Nevin from U-R-Able.com actually recommends organizations hire or consult with a certified orientation and mobility (OM) specialist for both the initial BlindSquare implementation, including the positioning of the iBeacons, plus the ongoing maintenance of the audio messaging system. "We always insist on having an OM professional sign off on the messaging," Nevin said. "How a sighted person would describe an environment or describe choices or describe where do we go from here, is vastly, vastly different from how a blind person would want to be told, and particularly in the context of the language used in their training in orientation and mobility."
In terms of future implementations of BlindSquare by other Canadian organizations, Nevin said there are a few projects in the works but none that are ready for use. Public transportation is one area of focus generally for BlindSquare, and Nevin said he has been working actively with CNIB on an initiative to roll out beacon positioning systems that will deliver enhanced public transit information to BlindSquare users, initially in Toronto and then to be rolled out nationally. "You need only imagine the importance of information in transportation for a person who is blind from the standpoint of joy of life or employment and the barriers of getting to those two places are significant," Nevin said.