ICY app helps vision-impaired connect with the world

VOICED VISION: Genevieve McLachlan, with seeing-eye dog Pedro, has been helping Stacy McLean, Ernest Cunningham and ...
Simon Edwards

VOICED VISION: Genevieve McLachlan, with seeing-eye dog Pedro, has been helping Stacy McLean, Ernest Cunningham and Daniel Grey trial their iSee system in Petone, which provides information about Jackson St and could be applied elsewhere.

WelTec students have devised a smartphone app with international potential, to help the visually impaired access information on their surroundings.

For the Jackson St Programme, (JSP) the ICY system brings alive the street's history for people who can't read the plaques and signboards on notable buildings.

The website and database is up and the full launch in Petone is two to three months away.

Ali Bradshaw, who is blind, says being alerted to detailed voiced information via smartphone on what's going on around her when she visits a place that is unfamiliar to her, "could revolutionise my life".

Stacy McLean, Ernest Cunningham and Daniel Grey were on WelTec's Bachelor of IT course, majoring in software engineering.

For their final project last year, they all wanted something that would have a community spin-off rather than a profit focus.

A chance conversation overhead at a child's birthday party had them change tack from project involving museum collections and the Gallipoli centennial, to something which can help blind people navigate. 

At a tech conference two years ago, iBeacons were launched. They're a little smaller than a matchbox and cost about $10. They send out a low-energy bluetooth pulse and when a registered user comes within about five metres, a connection is made.

"iBeacon is like a lighthouse," Cunningham says.

"It sits there and says 'I'm here'. Each one has its own unique ID.

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"Our app is listening for those beacons. When it finds one, it gets information associated with that ID, with the information [appearing as words on the user's smartphone screen and] relayed via the phone's voice-over function."

The system the three former students have been trialling uses beacons or "listening posts" for six functions: major intersections and pedestrian crossings, street hazards, businesses like the post office or banks, building interiors, bus stops and railway stations, and heritage features.

Cunningham said two levels of data were available to users.

The first function alerts the person when they pass an iBeacon. So the voiced alert might be, for example: "You are outside Petone Post Office".

If the user wants more information on that location, they tap their phone. They will be told the post office's opening hours, if there is a Kiwibank and where the mail slots are and so on.

Building interior descriptions are detailed. Genevieve McLachlan of Adaptive Technology Solutions, who has been co-ordinating half a dozen people with disabilities to work with the ICY team, said it is really useful for someone like her - a wheelchair user who also has a seeing eye dog - to know whether a building's doors open inwards or outwards, whether there is a ramp or stairs.

At Petone post office, the voiced commands tell her which way to turn for easiest access, where the counters are and so on.

Bus stops have electronic signs telling people how far off various buses are, but McLachlan says people like her can't see them. Being told when they are by a stop and being able to listen to a timetable is fantastic.

"I love it," she says. "I can't wait for [the final version] to be installed."

Grey says he and the team are grateful for the help they've had from McLachlan and other trial users. He says too many pieces of technology for those with disabilities have bugs and unhelpful quirks.

"With their feedback on what's useful and what's not, we've been able to sculpt this to what they need".

The trio are also grateful to the JSP and its co-ordinator Hellen Swales.

For Swales, it was a "no-brainer" to jump on board with ICY, making accessible the information on heritage plaques and signboards down Jackson St, to those with visual impairments or difficulty reading.

Petone businesses, cafes and restaurants will also be more accessible to such people. There are nearly 170,000 New Zealanders with serious visual impairment; about 12,000 are legally blind.

It was Swales who told the trio that their community focus was admirable, but if they were to realise the system's national and international potential and help the greatest number of people, they also needed to commercialise ICY.

The three are now working fulltime fine-tuning their app/iBeacon interface and dealing with kinks, such as programming the system to voice the proper phonetic sounding of Maori place names and words.

They'll then offer to get similar systems up and running elsewhere. Swales and the trio will be pitching ICY to delegates at the Small Town Conference that Lower Hutt is hosting in April.

Ali Bradshaw, of Wellington, is blind and although her seeing-eye dog copes well with familiar territory, she said she was not confident catching the bus to areas she didn't know unless her daughter was with her.

With ICY  and the iBeacons alerting her to all sorts of information, she was confident she would be back visiting Petone.

"It does bring the street alive for me."

This story has been corrected. It incorrectly referred to iSee app, instead of ICY.

 - Hutt News

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