The smartphone voice walks users through a typical mall.
“Keep Macy’s behind you and continue forward heading west, passing Zales Jewelers on your right, then make a quarter-turn right at the hallway intersection, then continue forward heading north passing Gymboree, Build-A-Bear will be the next store on your right.”
The AWARE wayfinding app for the visually impaired grew out of necessity for Rasha Said, founder of Sensible Innovations in Springfield. Said, who has a background in computer science, finance and business administration, devised a pilot program for her son through a partnership with Glenwood High School in Chatham. Beacons — so called “Smart Landmarks” — installed throughout the school communicate location to the smartphone user through audio cues.
“It’s to be able to navigate spaces and to know where they are at all times,” Said said. “They don’t have to memorize. They don’t have to feel like they’re going to get lost. They can be curious and try to discover new spaces.”
Said declines to identify her son, saying she wants him to be treated like any other student, as much as possible. He is doing well in his junior year, she added.
“I’d rather have him do his thing, and ‘by the way I’m blind,'” Said said.
Two years after starting the Glenwood pilot project, Sensible Innovation systems have been installed in a New York transit system, a social service agency in Chicago and a Springfield school for the visually impaired. The company’s AWARE app was recognized last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The system will be showcased at the annual Consumer Electronic Show in New York.
The company was featured last month by technology website iBeacon Trends, for use of her AWARE audio wayfinding app at Rosa Parks Hempstead Transit Center in Hempstead, New York. The system of beacons and smartphone apps allows visually impaired passengers to determine their location in the terminal, and directions to buses, tickets, exits and services.
Said demonstrated the technology in July at the annual conference of the Association of Higher Education and Disability in Orlando, Florida. But her inspiration began with a trip to Disney World with her son, whose condition has resulted in a gradual loss of vision. The need to explain scenery and sounds the rest of the family experienced led to experiments with audio, wayfinding apps and beacons.
“The visually impaired do a lot of research. When the visually impaired are starting school, they have to go ahead of everybody else and learn the place with a vision specialist, multiple times. They learn the steps, and they memorize the landmarks. They rely on their memory after that,” said Said, who has two other children.
“You try to visualize and create a map in your head,” Said said. “When they are on their own, every time they’re walking, it’s kind of processing everything. How many turns, how many steps before I turn? Is the second door on my right biology class? There are different noises, different smells.”
AWARE, which works with both iPhone and Android smart devices, does not replace traditional aids such as guide dogs, canes, audio alerts or Braille, said Said. The system, she said, is intended to provide the kind of information sighted people take for granted.
“It’s not an obstacle avoidance system,” Said said. “I don’t make safety claims. This is information that will help them navigate independently.”
‘Maybe a mom’
Mary Bryant Home for the visually impaired in Springfield installed the network two years ago, primarily as a demonstration of the technology. Executive Director Jerry Curry said some new students have used the system, though the visually impaired usually take just a few weeks to “learn” their way around the school.
“You could come in with your smartphone, and it can take you to any corner of the school,” Curry said. “It’ll tell you if you want to go from my office to the library. It’s remarkable technology.”
AWARE provides clients at The Chicago Lighthouse with information from vending machine contents to physician locations by specialty, said Luke Scriven, assistive technology manager for the social service organization. The program serves the visually impaired, people with disabilities and veterans.
“For instance, a person walking into our lobby can choose the cafeteria on the app and get step-by-step instructions on how to get to the cafeteria,” Scriven said in an email. “A new feature also allows a person to find out what services and stores are in their vicinity.”
The group has demonstrated the system for a variety of technology groups, Scriven added.
“We have found the system to work very well in guiding people to specific locations and conveying information to them,” Scriven said.
Schools, health-care facilities and public venues were among the early markets for Sensible Innovations. Said said malls, supermarkets and department stores are her next target, though she said that has been a tougher sell.
“They don’t see the numbers. They don’t see the return on investment,” Said said.
Both iPhone and Android system users can download the AWARE app free. Sensible Innovations revenue is earned from system configuration, installation and licensing of the software.
Said she would continue to update AWARE, including additional information and eventually multiple languages. Whatever the future for the commercial venture, Said said the system accomplished an early goal.
“If you have to process so much information about navigating, it takes away from the enjoyment of a place, it takes away from socializing with your friends, particularly at school,” she said. “All those things, I care about so much, maybe as a mom, I think about it.”
— Contact Tim Landis: firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1536, twitter.com/timlandisSJR..
Springfield-based entrepreneur Rasha Said, founder of Sensible Innovations, two years ago devised the AWARE wayfinding audio-app for use by her visually impaired son at school. The system was selected last week for inclusion in the 2018 Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas in January. Here’s an overview:
* Free app download to smartphone or other wireless device.
* A beacon network, “Smart Landmarks,” installed in buildings, transmits voice information through low-energy radio signals to the smart device, including services, store locations, directions, entrances and exits, and other information to help users navigate.
* Online, sensible-innovations.com.
* An estimated 23.7 million people 18 and older in the United States report significant vision loss, even with glasses or contact lenses; the number is 236,100 in Illinois.
* Just 1 percent of the population is born blind; vision loss most often results from macular degeneration, glaucoma, complications of diabetes and other causes.
* The number of vision impaired is expected to double in the next 30 years as baby boomers age.
* 70 percent of working-age blind adults are unemployed.
Source: National Federation for the Blind, nfb.org.