By adaptive - July 11th, 2016

While retailers use beacons to better communicate with customers, some other groups are looking at ways to use beacons and smartphones to help guide blind and visually impaired people around cities and on public transportation. Brendan McNally reports….

At this moment, nearly half a world away and largely unbeknownst to each other, two organizations are conducting remarkably similar tests to determine how well low-energy beacons and smartphones can help empower blind and visually impaired people to navigate busy train stations and airports on their own. 


If the outcomes are as positive as the groups’ expect, it will demonstrate that beacons' street-level usefulness will be wide-ranging and that within a few years they could be a ubiquitous presence in both the connected cities of the near-future and within the greater Internet of Things.


Anyone who has ever lived inside a city has witnessed blind and visually impaired people, long white canes in hand, tapping out their path across the urban landscape. They make their way, across areas with only the barest understand of the world they're passing through. 


They may know how to get where they are going, but not about possible points of interest along the way. With such limited engagement, the blind may be part of the city, but they still remain apart from it. 


Wayfindr, a not-for-profit joint venture created by the Royal London Society for the Blind's (RSLB) youth forum and the Ustwo digital product design studio has developed an open standard audio navigational app for smartphones. It was designed to help blind and vision-impaired travelers find their way around the London Underground. They believe it can also serve as the basis for wayfinding on city streets and would like to make it the basis of a common global standard.


Here’s how it works: blind travelers entering a transit station select their destinations using smartphones and are then guided via audio directions triggered from the beacons which are installed throughout the station.


“What makes Wayfindr so strong is its focus on Smartphones, meaning blind people don't have to spend hundreds of pounds on different gadgets. They have everything they need in their pockets,” says Dr. Tom Pey, RLSB chief executive and Wayfindr chairman. “The standard has been developed through rigorous user research in live environments, will give location owners and makers of digital navigational services the tools to empower vision-impaired people to independently navigate urban settings.” 


The first round of testing began last year at the Pimlico Tube station and has since moved to the much larger and busier Euston station. According to Wayfindr CEO Umesh Pandaya the trials will extend to several other Tube stations later this year and if all goes well, will be operating within the entire London Underground by 2020. 


Pandaya says that right now they are reaching out to retailers and other potential stakeholders, offering them the tools necessary to create inclusive, consistent experiences for their customers. “Bluetooth low energy beacons hold the key for opening up the world for vision-impaired people,” he says. “But in order to achieve the greatest impact globally, we need to develop a consistent standard to be implemented across wayfinding systems.” 


San Francisco International Airport (SFO) has its own beacon-based initiative for helping blind travelers navigate its concourses. Nearly five hundred Beacons, most no larger than a bottlecap, have been placed around SFO's Terminal 2. Each transmits a unique ID number that triggers actions on the user's smartphone.  


“Using this system, the passenger can receive audio messages guiding them to different gates, as well as to various points of interest ranging from restaurants to water fountains and even electrical outlets,” says SFO spokesman Doug Yakel. “It can also be used by sighted passengers and foreign language features will be added in the near future,”


The effort was developed through the City of San Francisco's Office of Civic Innovation's Entrepreneur-in-Residence program. It pairs efforts like this with local experts, in this case the Lighthouse for the Blind's San Francisco chapter and the Austrian indoor positioning and tech company (pronounced 'indoors'). The beacons were supplied by StickNFind. 


“Right now it’s being tested by volunteers from the Lighthouse for the Blind,” says Yakel. “They download the app, try it out and provide feedback.”  Yakel says that they expect to be rolling out more navigable areas as their ongoing airport renovation continues. “We've just renovated a concourse and we'll be having beacons installed there as well,” he adds. 


While SFO's goal is to help travelers better navigate the airport, Wayfindr aims to make London the world's most accessible city to the blind and visually impaired and also to be the basis for audio wayfinding on a global basis. That is why they are pushing so heavily for an open standard. Their literature repeatedly stresses how empowering it is for a blind and visually impaired people to navigate independently. 


Wayfindr executives say the app has the potential to revolutionize how people with disabilities participate in all areas of life, whether it is visiting family, traveling to and from work, or just socializing.


What these two pilot projects suggest for the future of beacons is that retail applications are only the tip of the iceberg and that they can be useful almost anywhere that people are moving around. 


In fact, wayfinding is a growing business for beacons, according to Nate Dunn, CEO of BlueCat Beacons, which is supplying beacons for the Wayfindr project. Dunn revealed in an interview with Open Mobile Media that more and more of the company’s business comes from transport authorities and other organizations that see beacons as a way both of knowing where their people are and understanding the dynamics of human movement. 


“Beacons allow you to open your eyes on a very granular level,” says Dunn.  


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