By: Christopher Reynolds Staff Reporter Published on Thu Aug 13 2015
David Best, a former IBM web developer, has just helped usher in the first pilot system in Canada created specifically to help visually impaired people nearly 200,000 in Ontario alone navigate the indoors.
A network of “iBeacons” launched last month inside the headquarters of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in north Toronto could, Best believes, sweep aside travel barriers, boost blind independence and open up worlds beyond the tip of the cane.
“It gives me virtual vision,” he said of the iBeacons, a recent Apple device.
Small and inexpensive, iBeacons beam information on a much smaller scale than the older GPS-based voice-over technology that has empowered sight-deprived individuals in the open air for several years. Any area under a roof or behind concrete, however, is largely off-limits to GPS, a duller digital tool for indoor spaces.
“GPS works outside; iBeacons work inside,” said Jim Sanders, former president of the CNIB.
Parapan Am athlete Tiana Knight demonstrates BlindSquare, an iPhone GPS app that helps blind people by voicing out what’s around them. But GPS apps don’t work well indoors, which has led to the creation of a new indoor navigation system that uses “iBeacons.”
Smaller than an ice cream sandwich, iBeacons can be slapped on hallway walls or around the office. They work by sending out Bluetooth signals picked up by iOS. That signal, recognized by an approaching smartphone or tablet, triggers an audio description, or voice-over, of the immediate area through an app called BlindSquare.
“You walk along and it will say, ‘Washrooms on the left.’ It will tell you the elevator’s on the right, and even which floors it goes to,” Sanders said of the simple but potentially game-changing technology. “It’s a complete breakthrough.”
BlindSquare, which also draws on GPS tech and Foursquare to help visually impaired individuals navigate the streetscape, operates intuitively. Shake your iPhone and the nearest address will be read back. Or type in where you want to go and the app will announce what’s nearby.
“It’s key for getting around the bus route in Calgary,” says Team Canada Parapan Am goalball athlete Tiana Knight, a native Albertan.
iBeacons have been used before, but rarely to unlock their potential for visually impaired individuals.
As of this summer, Pennsylvania State University is the first higher education institution in North America to install the iBeacon guidance system on its wood-panelled walls. The innovation empowers students who can now locate lecture halls and coffee shops sans assistance on a massive campus with an enrolment approaching 100,000.
Best hopes to see iBeacons in the halls of Canadian higher education and government shortly, with private business to follow.
He discussed the possibility with the University of Guelph last May, and is currently in talks with the University of Windsor. Windsor may be the first entity north of the border, aside from the CNIB, to put the low-energy devices on its walls.
The road ahead won’t necessarily be smooth, Best said.
“The biggest hitch right now that I deal with is attitude. We’re going through such rapid changes in society that business operators, employers are having a hard time understanding the technologies,” he said.
“A lot of times, even though the company may have an inclusive strategy, middle management or frontline management might be resistant because they’re afraid it will impact their productivity.
“For large organizations, when you consider the amount of effort that goes into providing guides for blind people, the payoff is huge,” he added.
Best, who had been completely blind since age 20, has never let adversity deter him. A computer science graduate in 1978, he had been warned the field “was not an appropriate career path for me so I did it anyway, because I was told I couldn’t.”
iBeacons cost $20 to $30 a pop, and average out to $10 each if bought in bulk, he said.
As the population ages, the number of Canadians who are blind or partially sighted will likely spike by 30 per cent, said Len Baker, executive director of CNIB Ontario.
He points out the everyday possibilities of iBeacons, from identifying which items a grocery store aisle contains to informing users about a restaurant’s Braille menu.