Sendero Group Travel Blog

Follow Sendero travelers on their adventures using accessible GPS.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


indoor orientation with beacons by Mike May

Sendero has been working on various indoor navigation technologies since 1995. Other than the few places that have Talking Signs, none of these technologies has been commercialized in the US. I find it amazing that after 20 years and millions of dollars in R&D, there is still no viable indoor navigation.

The hype these days is about beacons and iBeacons from Apple. These are small Bluetooth tags that can be placed around a store or museum to provide local information, not necessarily navigation, but information or orientation. When and if they work, you must have the app of the particular store installed to use the beacons.

If you research these on the Internet, you will see lots in the news and you would think the country is exploding with beacons. I think this sort of technology would be very valuable to blind people since we don't have an independent way to browse a store or to go window shopping.

Supposedly, several chains have beacons in some of their stores and Apple Stores all have them. I headed for the San Francisco Apple Store to see what the hype was all about. Two weeks ago, after much changing of settings and discussion with store staff, we couldn't get the iBeacons to work on my phone nor on their phones. I went back yesterday and there happened to be a guy at the store who was involved in installing the beacons. He checked my settings and found that the automatic background for the Apple Store app needed to be turned on under General Settings. Another employee had told me you had to be connected to the Apple Store Wi-Fi but this employee confirmed that this was not necessary. The information comes from the Bluetooth signal and not from Wi-Fi. He did say you had to be in the lock screen for the notifications to trigger.

After trying many options with his phone and mine, we got one beacon to trigger on his phone and then once on my phone when VoiceOver was turned off. We couldn't think of any reason VoiceOver would matter but that is what happened in a single instance of the iBeacon triggering. One theory  about why the beacons were not working in the Apple Store is that there is Bluetooth signal saturation. There are hundreds of Bluetooth signals from the various Apple devices in the store and they may be jamming the iBeacon signals.

After two trips to the Apple Store, still no luck experiencing independent browsing. I reported this situation to the Apple Accessibility hotline and the store employee said he would also inform the Apple developers. I believe there is significant momentum behind beacons that they will eventually become ubiquitous. This is a reminder that just because a technology is in the news, does not mean it is fully functional and ready for prime time.
I have also heard talk about beacons being used for navigation, not just orientation. This assumes that you could use the Bluetooth signals to triangulate the way you do with GPS. If this is possible, it certainly isn't something well understood yet. It is hard enough to judge distance with one Bluetooth signal let alone triangulating time and distance with multiple signals. I do love the term being bantered around, The Internet of Things.
I'd love to hear if anyone else has any success with beacons.


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