NC State Engineering VIB campers and instructors using BlindSquare on campus routes.

Tech Time-Out #2 Navigation: Engineering Camp 2016

Students with visual impairments and blindness apply their O&M skills and learn about new navigation technology and through an engineering project.

During the NC State Engineering VIB Camp, high school students lived in college dorms, ate in the university dining halls, attended engineering lectures, rode the Wolfline (university public bus system), participated in engineering activities, toured three STEM labs, and spent a day learning about and deploying iBeacons in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.  In order to participate in these activities, students needed to be confident with their Orientation and Mobility (O&M) skills and independent in new environments.  This Tech Time-Out will focus on the technology used for personal navigation during camp as well as the engineering design project to deploy iBeacons for museum navigation.

Students attending the NC State Engineering VIB camp had a variety of visual diagnosis and visual acuities.  Some students relied on canes or a combination of cane and residual vision, some students used canes only at night, and some students relied only on their vision.  The majority of students had been evaluated and/or received direct service O&M through their home school.  All of the students were independent and confident travelers.  A Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) was part of the educational staff during the engineering camp and O&M was provided as needed for students as they checked into the camp.  Residential staff received basic O&M training; the educational staff consisted of returning staff (knowledgeable about basic O&M) and a teacher of the visually impaired.

Navigation Technology:

Translock: Campers receiving BlindSquare instruction outside of the museum.This smart phone app provides information about bus stops, schedules, real-time bus location for the Wolfline, the NC State bus system.

BlindSquare: An accessible navigation app for outdoor travel and cutting-edge indoor navigation through the use of iBeacons.  Students with iPhones were give iTunes cards in order to install BlindSquare on their personal iPhones.  (Several students who did not have a personal iPhone were loaned phones or teamed up during the activities that required an iPhone.)

Points of Interest (POIs): Apps such as Apple Maps or Google Maps use streets as reference points.  These apps cannot provide route information when traveling internal campus routes without streets.  BlindSquare enables users to set a POI to mark a specific building and even a specific door on a building.  Students learned how to set POIs for the front door of the Engineering II building and additional important POIs such as the desired bus stops, dorm door, and dining facilities door.  Once the POI is set, the students could then use BlindSquare to travel routes to these locations.

Plan and Track Driving Routes: Students were also encouraged to use BlindSquare to plan the route to the museum and to track that route while riding in the van.

Search:  While at the museum, students practiced searching for nearby restaurants and then perused the on-line menu, how to use Favorites to save a popular destination, and other BlindSquare features.

Student exploring the digital museum map on an iPad.Student exploring the digital museum map on an iPhone using VoiceOver and earbuds.

NC NatSci app: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Guide is a fully accessible digital iOS guide.  This app includes information about the museum, detailed information about the exhibits and accessible maps of all four floors of both buildings.  Drag your finger around the maps and VoiceOver speaks the visual information.  Double tap to drill down for exhibit details.

Students used the NC NatSci app to learn the basic layout of the museum and to glean information about specific exhibits, before physically walking and exploring the museum.

Check out the NC NatSci app video.

iBeacons and BlindSquare:  iBeacons are low-energy Bluetooth devices that transmits a signal that can be received by mobile phones.  iBeacons were deployed in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to provide navigational information for patrons who are visually impaired or blind. Patrons can point their iPhone and receive information about exhibits and areas in that specific direction; turn and the iPhone will state information about items located in that direction.  The first phase of the indoor navigation system has been completed – iBeacons were deployed last winter in the Nature Research Center, which is one of the two museum buildings.

iBeacons Engineering Activity: During the engineering camp, students spent a day at the museum learning about iBeacons and how to deploy these iBeacons in the second building.  Students were divided into teams; each team covered one floor in the Nature Exploration Center building.  Students first developed a mental map using the interactive, accessible NC NatSci app maps.  Then, each student team walked their assigned floor to determine possible places to mount the beacons and to decide what navigational information their beacons should provide.

Two campers dictating notes on iPhone while viewing large print map beside an iBeacon.Two students taking notes on a computer while viewing the large print tactile map.

Large Print Tactile Maps: Students met back in the conference room in order to create a digital document about their findings.  Students used a variety of personal technology (BrailleNote, iPad and computers).  Students were offered large print, tactile maps to help them remember the various spatial relations of the exhibits and areas on their floor.  As a group, the students discussed the language in order for the beacons to convey information consistently.   The beacon sentences were added to Google Sheet (which manages the iBeacons) and a beacon was deployed.  Following the Engineering Design Process, students checked the deployed beacon, determined why one piece of information was activated when facing the wrong direction, and determined the necessary changes to make the beacon work correctly.

Throughout the camp, students applied their personal O&M skills on a college campus; O&M and independence is integrated into all aspects of college life!  The students also learned about navigational technology – including innovative indoor navigation and accessible digital maps.  These future engineers are already discussing creative ways to apply these new technologies!Campers and instructors standing in front of the whale skeleton at the museum


Pinterest collage for navigation technology


By Diane Brauner

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