Let It Beacon: Creating Accessible Indoor Spaces

Posted by Rob Mineault on

If you’ve been paying attention to the number of mobility apps that have popped up lately, you’ve probably heard the term ‘beacon’ being used pretty liberally. Just what are beacons and how can the technology be utilized and leveraged in an accessibility sense? I’m so glad you asked!

Just what is a Beacon, anyway?

Picture of a BeaconSimply put, a beacon is a small Wifi or Bluetooth radio transmitter. Its only job is to repeatedly transmit a single signal that other devices can detect. Many have described it much like a kind of ‘lighthouse’. Just as a lighthouse emits a bright beam of light for a single purpose, beacons send out a radio signal that is made up of a combination of numbers and letters that is transmitted on a regular interval of 1/10th of a second.  A Bluetooth equipped device like a smartphone can then in turn see and recognize the signal once it’s within a certain range.

What’s Inside a Beacon?

Remember back in High School when you dissected a frog? Well, it’s not nearly that icky. Nope, in general, beacons are pretty simple little devices. No rat’s nest of wires and motherboards, looking a lot like R2-D2 threw up. All you’ll find when you crack one open is a small CPU, a radio and batteries. Now that might sound like a lot at first mention, but keep in mind all of those can be made extremely small these days. Most beacons run off small lithium chip batteries (think watch batteries) which are small and much more powerful than AA batteries. They also may run off connected power sources like USB plugs. This makes them able to come in all shapes and sizes and can include such add-ons such as accelerometers or temperature sensors. But despite it all, all beacons have one thing in common -- their main function is to transmit a signal.

And Just What Does a Beacon Transmit?

Again, the amazing part of Beacons are their simplicity. Their one job is to send a unique ID number out, over and over again. That’s it. That unique ID number then gets sent to whatever listening device (eg. Smartphone) is close by which lets it identify the beacon.

So What Makes Beacons So Useful?

The uses for Beacons are only limited to developers’ ingenuity, really. Marketers in general have been drooling all over themselves with this particular technology since it gives them the ability to do such things as push notifications to devices based on where the customer is. In terms of Assistive Technology, however, beacons serve a much more useful function : indoor navigation.

Anyone who has used GPS on any device knows all too well that it’s incredibly useful getting you to a certain address within a mere ten or twenty feet. That’s great for finding the Mall … but quite often GPS reception is non-existent once you enter a building, so once you’re inside, GPS really isn’t an option. Not only would you have trouble getting a signal, but not being able to be accurate within those last two feet could be the difference between walking into the food court or walking into Foot Locker.

Image of a Beacon App open a smartphone with Map overlay showing storesSo, with GPS out of the picture, that’s where Beacon or other positioning technologies come into play. Beacons can be used to create a type of “indoor GPS” network which can not only be pinpoint accurate in terms of location, but could also even help determine other factors GPS couldn’t, such as Floor Level. Most applications require an "indoor routing" functionality that guides people precisely through a building using an indoor navigation app and in this way, automatically determines their position – very similar to the navigation systems that we use in our cars.

How Beacons Connect to Devices

Beacon technology generally has two methods of communication with devices that you’re sure to have heard of: WiFi and Bluetooth. As anyone with a Smartphone can tell you, Bluetooth is present in nearly all mobile devices these days. While most consumers don’t necessarily use Bluetooth on a daily basis (although many do), it’s hugely important to the ‘Internet of Things’ connective web that continues to gain traction in the mainstream. This means that by using Bluetooth connectivity, Beacons are totally compatible with a massive number of devices used by people on a daily basis. WiFi can also be used to fill in the gaps left by non-Bluetooth devices and is perfect for indoor navigation since it can use existing infrastructure such as customer hotspots, WiFi-capable point of sale systems and routers.

How Beacons Are Used

Ok, so that’s all the boring technical stuff out of the way. Now we can talk about just how the technology works and what it can do in terms of helping someone navigate a space.

So, let’s use an example of a shopping mall that has just installed a series of Bluetooth enabled beacons. All of those beacons will be assigned certain IDs by the Mall, usually through a back end system that is configured during installation. The smartphone app that the consumer is using will then in turn be able to recognize those IDs being transmitted by the various beacons inside the mall. The ID itself doesn’t have much meaning to the end user. It’s the smartphone app that recognizes the ID, translates it into meaningful navigation information, and then gives that information to the end user.

Of course, these apps can be programmed to do almost anything when it receives a beacon’s ID. It could be configured to give you store and navigation, telling you that you are in front of Foot Locker, for example, but could also just as easily transmit a digital coupon to your phone as incentive to enter. As you can imagine, the marketing potential for beacon technology is almost as substantial as the navigation and accessibility potential, especially when paired together.

Don’t Be Hating

In this climate of privacy related issues, it’s not at all surprising that beacon technology at first glance can be misunderstood. People assume that beacons are a type of tracking technology and have a knee jerk reaction to it. All beacons are doing are transmitting signals -- there’s no tracking involved. And the interpretation of those signals and what happens as a result of receiving that signal is completely up to whatever app the end user is using.

Got Any Examples of Beacons In Action?

Well, so glad you asked! In mid-2013 Apple introduced and activated iBeacons across its 254 US retails stores and even McDonald’s has used these to give special offers to customers at their restaurants.

Screenshot of the RightHear AppAccessibility-wise, however, there’s no better example of the full potential of Beacon Technology than the RightHear Indoor Navigation system. With Right-Hear, any indoor space can be transformed into an accessible environment. The app itself is free for users, and can utilize RightHear’s beacons that have been set up in a retail space or establishment to help guide the visually impaired through audio cues. The system could give directions to a certain product aisle, in a grocery store environment. Or in a smaller space such as a coffee shop, a beacon could trigger an audio cue such as “bathroom is twenty feet straight down, then turned down the hallway to the right”.  

There are also various other apps that will also support different types of beacons as well. Blind Square (https://www.blindsquare.com/indoor/)  is a popular accessibility app that supports both iBeacons as well as the RightHear beacons. Aware Audible Wayfinding App from Sensible Innovations (http://www.sensible-innovations.com/aware-app) is another app that uses iBeacons to provide information, offers, and directions to users.

So What’s Next?

So, as you can see -- beacon technology is a huge step forward for accessibility and the technology only continues to improve as more and more businesses and communities are beginning to adapt them into their spaces.Hopefully this trend will continue to grow, and a single beacon standard will be developed so that multiple apps aren’t required to tell users what beacon is transmitting. All that needs to be done at this point is to spread the word about this technology and ask your local businesses about looking into these mobility solutions and make the case for continuing to make our public and retail spaces even more accessible!

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