GTT notes for January, 2017: Blindsquare

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+Ian White opened the meeting. He described some upcoming events. The CCB in conjunction with Accessible Media Inc., will, on February 4th, be hosting the WCW Experience expo. Exhibiters will be welcomed in to offer services, products etc. related to living with vision loss. Tech, recreation and other areas will be included. Examples of exhibiters are Human Ware, Blind Sailing association, dragon boating, and blind golfers. It will be at the CNIB centre from 10:00 a.m. till 4:00 p.m.. There will be a social afterward.

 

In terms of GTT, Ian invited Jason to talk about upcoming GTT meetings. Jason said that in February, the GTT speaker will be a high school student who has developed an ap called Identifi. It’s a smartphone ap that takes a picture, then gives you information such as object recognition, colour, text etc.. Jason is hopeful that March’s meeting will feature an Uber representative, and April’s meeting will feature two presenters on using Ciri. Meetings are always the third Thursday of every month. If you’re not on the GTT email list, you should be. Messages also go out on Torshout and the Visionaries list.

 

Jason introduced Rob Nevin from MISoft, who makes BlindSquare, which is a gps ap. He and Debby will speak about BlindSquare, and its iBeacon technology. Rob began with a short tour of what BlindSquare is doing. The goal is seamless travel from A to B. With BlindSquare, you can get feedback outdoors and indoors. Debby said that there are about 35 beacons in the CNIB building, and she invited people to roam around the building after the presentation to explore. They’re on the main, second, and basement floors. Clarification was given that BlindSquare is an iPhone ap, not usable on Android.

 

Rob described himself as working with adaptive tech for the last six years. He and his partner have worked together on BlindSquare. Why do we want indoor travel, and what is it? Outdoor navigation happens using GPS technology. An IBeacon is indoor technology, that looks a bit like an ant trap. Each beacon is battery operated, with a life of about five years. Each beacon sends out signals three times per second, which can be detected by a cloud-based database. The data base has information about the beacon, which is downloaded to your phone, and read to you. Rob played a video of a Finish woman using BlindSquare in a shopping mall. Types of information the user in the video gets include, approaching doors and which way they’ll open, information about stores she passes, the presence of escalators and which way they’re going, and what intersecting hallways contain. The information is being relayed to her via headphones.

 

Rob moved on to talk about bus stops. He discussed the types of information you might want, such as route numbers, the presence of a shelter, changes in service that might be indicated only by print signage, and hazards such as garbage cans. Rob introduced the concept of a QR code. They’re like barcodes. Sometimes bus stops have QR codes giving route information. BlindSquare can tell you exactly where to look on a sign to find the QR code, and read its information. QR codes are updatable in the database, making them dynamic as opposed to barcodes.

 

A member asked how to know if a building has IBeacons. Rob answered that, if you approach a building using BlindSquare, the ap will inform you. Another member asked about buildings that have a similar technology that isn’t BlindSquare. Rob replied that he’s very open to conversation, but is more reactive. It will depend on what the exact technology involved is. Hospitals, malls and airports often have some version of this technology in place. This means the information’s available, but not necessarily compatible at the moment.

 

Rob went on to describe a project in New Zealand, in which dynamic transit signage is accessible by BlindSquare. The changing information is read within about three or four metres of the sign. This allows the blind traveller to make choices.

 

The goal is to say as little as possible, while conveying as much information as necessary. He gave an example of entering a Tim Hortons. You would know firstly that you’re in the right place. You could be informed of the direction of the counter, the pickup area, the seating, or the bathrooms. Information is prioritized by level, so that something like specific information about the layout of the bathrooms is available as third level information. Also, information is offered not dictated. The language is chosen specifically. The intention is to engender autonomy rather than dependence. Always know where you are, and what your choices are.

 

Rob described simulation mode. This allows you to virtually go to any city, and explore. You can trace a route from beginning to end, so that you know what to expect in time, distance and complexity. This can be useful both for future travel to new places, or situations in which you want to go somewhere in your home city you’ve never been before. You could be at a bus stop, virtually explore the area around, and make spontaneous choices to change your plan.

 

A member asked how current the information that you’re getting is. Rob replied by explaining that 4Square is the data base they use. This is a crowd-sourced database, that operates on the principle 1,9 ,90, 1% of people will create data, 9% will maintain it, and 90% will use it. Google and Apple are being considered, but those two platforms sometimes want to place restrictions.

 

A member asked whether it’s possible for individuals to have their own IBeacons for private use. Rob answered that the technology supports that use, but BlindSquare currently does not, as they’re focused on large scale installations. Other organizations are taking on this idea.

 

Another member asked about crosswalks. Rob replied that it would be a great application of the technology, but it isn’t in place yet.

 

Rob moved on to talk about the idea of mobile beacons. The example he gave was beacons on electric cars, which are often dangerously quiet from the perspective of blind travellers. An IBeacon on an electric car would allow you to know one is coming, or that one is at the crosswalk where you want to cross. An IBeacon in an electric car will trigger a varying proximity indicator. The range of IBeacons generally is about 55m. Another application could be on golf carts moving around airports, which normally move very quietly.

 

Rob described an initiative in New Zealand involving the major blindness organization. They wanted to establish what can be done with a single IBeacon. Any commercial location can opt in. The advantage of selling an IBeacon to sighted people is that it looks small and simple. Work continues with the W. Ross MacDonald School for the Blind, and the school for the blind in North Carolina, to make teaching BlindSquare part of the curriculum.

 

Jason asked what initiatives are going on in Canada. Rob answered that negotiations are ongoing with Calgary airport, a region of downtown Toronto, and part of the city of Brantford. The physical beacon cost varies by bulk, three for $88. The conversation with public transit organizations are on-going. In some cities there are live feeds available.

 

There are some voice commands in BlindSquare. If you say “Bus,” it gives you as much information as it has about busses nearby. The voice interface uses Google’s voice to text technology, which rob says is much better than Ciri voice to text technology. With voice commands, you can say, “add,” and then continue to make a note, which essentially creates a point of interest: a cue that will activate when you approach that place at any point in the future. If you’re curious about voice commands, say, “help.” Rob did a demo using voice commands. He did simulations of Wellington New Zealand, and London England.

 

A member asked how to get BlindSquare. Rob answered that you first need an iPhone, and that BlindSquare is an ap that you buy, and download onto your phone. You need cellular data unless you’re on YFi. In general, the usage is about one megabyte per hour. You can set restrictions as to what information is provided. It’s possible to be flooded with information. Data is prioritized so that, for example, restaurants are given with highest rated restaurants first. The data is somewhat filtered. Debby contributed that, if you look at a restaurant through BlindSquare and look for the menu, you’re more likely to get the accessible version.

 

A member asked if there’s an optimal number of beacons per square footage. Rob answered that it depends on how dense the location is, and how much information is useful. Second level hints might include floor texture change: tile to carpet. The cues might be environmental, you’ll feel a breeze, or smell coffee.

 

A member asked, what’s the barrier to getting IBeacons in malls? Rob answered, awareness building, stressing the importance of inclusivity and buying power. Sometimes BlindSquare and IBeacons can overlap effectively with way-finding technologies for sighted people. This can be especially true in malls and university campuses.

 

BlindSquare offers downloadable Maps that are made with blind users in mind, which are printable on a 3d printer. A contest is starting today, in which users are invited to give their experiences of using BlindSquare, best story will win $100. To submit your story, go to http://Bit.ly/bsqmystory.

 

Gtt.toronto@gmail.com is the email address to be signed up to the list. It’s the main place where meeting notes go out.

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