Being AWARE of one’s surroundings

Local woman invents app for vision-impaired

By Gabe House

Rasha Said’s son describes AWARE as “a sign you can hear.”

The free Android and iOS app, created by Said, is for the blind and vision-impaired with all information conveyed by voice to the user. Utilizing iBeacons placed in specific areas and containing configurable information, AWARE can serve several different functions.

“If they want to learn more about their current location, they can get more information about it,” Said explained. “It also functions a lot like a GPS,  giving turn-by-turn directions. Since it updates them in real-time, it can help them stay on the right path.”

According to Said, the genesis of AWARE occurred during a vacation at Disney World. The expansive beauty of the park, Said laughed, is something that needs to shared. So she described all of the incredible sights to her vision-impaired son: the buildings, the rides, the flora and fauna. Everything.

“I was describing it all for him, and it was an exhausting process,” Said recalled. “I felt guilt, but I also felt exhausted. It was exhausting for him, too, to depend on people. This was when [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][the idea for AWARE] came to me.”

Thus began the research into bringing to life an app that could do the explaining for people. Said has a technology background, she said, so that helped the process along. When she discovered the existence of iBeacons, everything fell together.

Developed by Apple in 2013, iBeacon is a protocol used with small transmitters or tags which send information via Bluetooth low energy (BLE) to portable devices such as smartphones. The discovery of this piece of technology made it so essentially, the hardest part of Said’s work was already done. She didn’t have to create any devices because smartphones already existed – so all she had to focus on was an app that would interface with them.

“Tags were used a lot by retailers – they could place them in the grocery store on the milk shelf,” Said explained. “The app is triggered from the tag, then it knows I’m moving on to the next shelf and pushes a coupon for a sale in the cereal aisle. There are now so many applications built around these. It’s the Internet of things.”

Rather than pushing coupons to cell phones, the AWARE app can read a user’s location in real time and vocally guide them to their next destination. It can also offer the user details about the specific area that has been tagged in the iBeacon. This information can be requested or declined as users continue on their way.

Said piloted the app at Glenwood High School in Chatham, where her son is a student. Since then, she’s installed iBeacons in places as varied as the Chicago Lighthouse, the Mary Bryant Home for the Blind and convention centers in Denver and Washington, D.C., among others.

“We installed iBeacons for the Mobile Enabling Summit in DC” – a program dedicated to creating devices and applications for users of all abilities – “to help blind attendees navigate the many booths,” Said recalls. “It was very good!”

Said must initially put the AWARE app’s beacons in place and program them herself since their use is so specialized. Afterwards, however, vendors or location owners can access a website to update information as needed.

An added benefit to Said’s iBeacon expansion as she adds more locations compatible with the AWARE app is the ability for its vision-impaired users to plan their trips and visits. Although AWARE does update in real-time based on proximity to iBeacons, it can also be accessed off-site ahead of time.

“People who are vision-impaired like to get familiar with a place before they go there, so you can also access the information offline and retrieve navigation points that will give you step-by-step, turn-by-turn directions for when you actually go,” Said said. “And then, once they arrive, it updates in real-time based on their location.”

Gabe House is a freelance writer in Springfield.


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