Most of us have become used to hearing our friendly GPS voice telling us to “turn left in 300 metres” and “you have reached your destination”. GPS is great at getting us to the door but what happens when we walk through that door? One of the fastest growing areas of mapping is now indoors. Called indoor navigation, it guides people through enclosed spaces where GPS signals cannot reach.
Beyond Public Spaces
Both Apple and Google have indoor maps of public spaces like airports, stadiums, bus/train stations, subways, universities and museums. But until this year, they used different data formats. So if you had an Android phone, indoor navigation could steer you only in places Google had mapped, and iPhones only picked up on Apple maps. But that all changed earlier this year, when the Open Geospatial Consortium—made of Google, Apple, Autodesk, Esri, NYC Dept. of Technology and others—agreed on using Apple’s indoor mapping data format (IMDF). David Brun, founder of Gateway Navigation, a company specializing in inclusive audio navigation systems, expects this will be a game changer moving forward. Having a standard format will enable venues to share/register their mapping data with a growing number of software developers
Obviously there are no satellites inside an airport to detect you and steer you to the gate of your connecting flight, so how does the indoor positioning system work? The answer is in the palm of your hand, tucked inside your trusty smartphone. Combining data from its gyroscope, compass, altimeter, and accelerometer with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals, an algorithm calculates your position indoors.
From there it maps out your next steps—to the restroom, to the (burrito) bar, then, when you’re ready, on to the gate. But… While an amazing tool, the directions on your phone are visual. What if you can’t make them out? Can an indoor positioning system help people with vision loss? Both IOS and Android devices have screen reading apps that read aloud text as the user touches the screen. But pictures, though they may be worth a thousand words, are vexingly silent to the blind.
What if an indoor positioning system could speak up? What if, for example, a person with vision loss uses her GPS to navigate to the door of a bank, then, once inside, she hears an audio message through her phone which would give her detailed information about her surroundings. ABM 10 feet to the right; tellers 20 feet to the left.
Currently there are three major companies creating these types of apps for the blind, Accessibiuld, Way Map and Access Explore. These apps provide detailed information about the indoor environment, navigation guidance, and information about available accessibility tools, such as touch-screen elevators and tactile pathways. As a person moves through the indoor environment he will be given audible information at key decision points. Standards have been created about what information is needed and when it is spoken.
Though exciting and promising for those with vision loss, this audible technology is still in its infancy, and not just for indoor navigating. David Brun said, “A study at McGill University discovered that 80% of the information on the internet is presented graphically which is either not accessible to the blind or needs special software to make it accessible. The key for those with vision loss is to be in the forefront of developing the standards for indoor mapping, being sure accessibility details are included, and advocate for more indoor places to be mapped and those maps shared. We don’t want indoor navigation to be like when the internet began. Accessibility wasn’t integrated from the start and those with vision loss have been chasing accessibility on the net ever since.”
The recently passed Canada Accessibility Act will encourage industries regulated by the federal government to integrate accessible technology into spaces they control, including for indoor navigation.
It is hoped they will lead the way to a more accessible Canada, where those with vision loss are able to navigate indoors as well as outdoors, and take another giant step toward day-to-day independence in life, for shopping, travel and employment.
By Guest Contributors Gary Steeves and Susan McEvoy