As someone who has been blind almost my entire life, I consider myself a good independent traveler. When it comes to places I visit on a daily or regular basis, I know my way around quite well. It is an entirely different story when I go to unfamiliar places, however. As is the case for most people who are blind or visually impaired, going to new and unfamiliar locations can become a challenge because we cannot see the cues or signs that sighted people can easily scope out using their vision. When I go to an unfamiliar office building, for instance, I cannot tell where the lobby, cafeteria, bathrooms or other offices are located. Often I have to ask others around me, or — in the worst case scenario — walk around and “explore” until I find what I am looking for.
Fortunately for myself an other people who are blind or visually impaired, the Aware app is making wayfinding easier for us. This app, combined with special Bluetooth beacons, helps orient people with vision loss to our surroundings. Without a doubt this makes it much easier for us to feel more safe and independent in new locations.
How It Works
Using Apple’s iBeacon technology and the Aware iOS or Android mobile app, users get verbal information and directions to different locations in a building. The iBeacons, which are installed throughout different areas of a facility, transmit information via Bluetooth to a user’s phone. The app then announces the places as users approach them. It will also give directions and guide them to different locations.
The Aware app uses information and navigation beacons. Navigation beacons give directions to different places in a building. Users can choose a desired location in the app’s directory (a feature I particularly like,) and once selected, the app will guide the person there. For example, it can give me directions from a building’s lobby to the cafeteria and vice versa. Information beacons give more specific details, such as the description of a room’s layout. The app announces where the information desk and seating areas are, for instance. These beacons can also read things like restaurant menus and items in vending machines.
Beacon information for each building is managed through an online portal. The website, which is also accessible to assistive technology users, allows those in charge of configuring the beacons to add or update information as needed. This can be useful when making a correction or updating the description of a room’s layout, for instance. The portal can be accessed at any time of day, and information can always be updated.
The Aware app and technology levels the playing field for people without sight, and the possibilities for its use are endless! Going to the grocery store or other office building will be less of a challenge. What’s most important, I will not have to be overwhelmed at not knowing where things are in those facilities. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as more new and exciting features are becoming available on the app. One of these is the Around Me feature. By pressing this button, users can find out what locations are nearby within a mile radius, even when there are no beacons present. In our next post, I will share more about these new features, and how they can provide even more independence to people who are blind.
To increase public awareness and understanding, The Chicago Lighthouse proudly introduces “Sandy’s View,” a weekly column featuring responses to commonly asked questions about the challenges facing people who are blind or visually impaired.
Each week we will share a question with our audience along with a detailed response. Penning the new column is Lighthouse staff member Sandy Murillo, a journalist and contributor to “The Beacon,” a popular weekly radio program on disability issues.