LivAbility Magazine

Edition 19 | Winter 2020

Photo by Estafania Cavazos

Taking a look at an application that extends traditional navigation systems

By Shane Crowe

Following his usual routine, David Furukawa, led by his guide dog, Simon, was walking his then four-year-old son to school. He had recently retired from Emory University and was settling in as a house dad. Their reverie was broken as they were crossing the street. A car ran a stop sign. Simon pushed Furukawa’s son out of danger, but the car still hit Furukawa and his guide dog. Furukawa sustained multiple fractures, and Simon did not survive.

“It was one of those life-changing moments,” Furukawa said. While at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Furukawa was visited by longtime friend Chris Webb. Webb was determined to find a solution that would provide more safety and the information necessary for Furukawa to feel comfortable navigating the world again.

“We knew there was going to be some level of post-traumatic stress disorder with me getting back out on the street,” Furukawa said. “But what really sealed the deal for me was we go on this music cruise every year called the Rock Boat.”

The Rock Boat is a maritime music festival and a shared holiday tradition between Furukawa and Webb.

“For me, maneuvering a cruise ship by myself is difficult at best without having somebody guiding me along the entire time,” Furukawa said. “So, Chris came up with the idea of utilizing the Bluetooth beacons to provide points of interest on the ship.”

Bluetooth beacons are devices placed around the tangible world that can communicate with one’s smartphone and provide them with information tailored to the location. For instance, if a beacon is placed in a restaurant, it can display the menu, inform the user about specials and provide the restaurant’s hours of operation.

“We put something like 70 beacons around the ship for Dave just to see how it would work for 18 hours at one time,” Webb said.

From this experiment, the duo created Foresight Augmented Reality (FAR), a company that utilizes Bluetooth technology to provide accurate information about the user’s environment focusing not only on navigation but context.

“There are a lot of different applications available and adaptive technology out there that provide navigation services to the visually-impaired, blind and disabled,” Furukawa said. These applications use point-to-point navigation or GPS navigation.

“They say turn left here, turn right here,” said Furukawa. “But it doesn’t give you [the] context of what’s actually around you.”

Webb says this context is important because people use landmarks to create mental maps of their environment.

“We’re using our technology to give that same information to a visually-impaired person through audio prompts,” Webb said. “So, they can build their own mental map in their head and use their own navigation skills and their mobility skills to get around.”

Webb and Furukawa have designed their business model around making this service an affordable solution. The app itself is free and beacons, along with a subscription to the FAR networks, are priced reasonably for businesses, universities and governments, according to Webb.

“What we’re finding is that really every business wants to help,” Webb said. “They all want to help the visually impaired, but they don’t see a lot of them. And we have to explain that a lot of them don’t get out because they don’t have technologies like this that will make an environment accommodating to them,” he says.

Ability360 has four beacons located at different points of interest throughout the campus. We asked our colleague Larry Wanger to test the beacons and give us some feedback.

Wanger is the Vice President of Employment Services at Ability360 and a writer at LivAbility. He has a visual impairment.

“It’s got a lot of potential uses,” Wanger said. “[It is] hard to compare this versus Google Maps or something. It has a very different purpose, but given good directions and that sort of thing, it could be really helpful.”

“One of the drawbacks is that it’s a very specific application,” Wanger said. “I wouldn’t know these were here if I didn’t have the application launched and it detected it,” he said.

“There are other technologies that have come out in the past, specifically directed at low vision people where you had to have really expensive equipment and devices,” Wanger said. “This is nice. It’s just there.”

Furukawa and Webb have been updating and improving the app based on user feedback and are now expanding to a larger user group including those with cognitive disabilities, Furukawa told LivAbility.

The FAR app is available for IOS and Android. Beacons have been installed in eight states and the UK.

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Shane Crowe

Shane Crowe is a senior at Arizona State University where he double majors in journalism and digital culture. Shane was born in Phoenix, Arizona and enjoys camping, making music and pursuing creative projects with his friends. He hopes to one day stick to a regular exercise schedule.

Read more by Shane Crowe.