SPRINGFIELD — A smartphone app is seeking to help people, whether they're blind or not, explore downtown Springfield without limits.
The city of Springfield has commissioned Sensible Innovations to install wireless beacons on downtown streets so that users of its audible wayfinding app, The Aware App, can get turn-by-turn directions to downtown destinations.
The directions are much more specific than typical navigational apps like Google Maps, Waze or Apple Maps, which are more often used by drivers than walkers. Because smart devices like iPhones, Android phones and tablets have accessibility features, users can hear or read the information based on their preference.
As they walk down the street with a smart device in hand, users will be able to hear details about roads, intersections and buildings around them, if they choose. The hope is for historic Springfield sites and attractions to one day subscribe to the app so they can give residents and tourists information as they walk downtown, according to city communications director Julia Frevert.
To buy and install 244 iBeacons along parts of Jefferson, Fifth, Edwards and Seventh streets downtown, the city signed a $49,500 contract with Sensible Innovations in July, Frevert said. The hope is for the system to go online in early October.
To access the technology, the city didn't have to go far. Sensible Innovations is owned by Springfield resident Rasha Said, who created the app to help her blind son and eventually patented the software's navigational algorithm.
A member of downtown business incubator Innovate Springfield, Said first installed the beacons in her son's high school in Chatham, showing him to how to get from one classroom to the next quickly. The Mary Bryant Home For The Blind and Maldaner's Restaurant in Springfield also signed on. Universities and transit systems in other states have also subscribed to the app.
Springfield, though, will be Said's biggest project yet.
With the help of the administration and buy-in from the community, she hopes to create a "smart" city.
"Not everyone has to have a separate app, a different app," Said said. "It's one app for Springfield. Everybody just needs to participate."
The app won an innovation award in this year's smart cities category for the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, one of the largest technology trade shows in the world.
With blindness comes the trepidation to take the wrong step, Said said. Without assistance, those who have vision problems will stay inside or stick to well-worn paths.
"The idea is to get them out of the comfort zone and help them explore, not be afraid of exploring," Said said. "Let me take one more step and here: 'What's in there?'"
Though the app was initially dreamed up for those who are blind, she said anyone can use it.
A bigger vision
Said's team is currently setting up the iBeacons, making sure they are positioned correctly on light poles and lanterns so to send signals to devices. Though the Post-It sized orange squares can be seen in some places downtown, there is much more work to be done before they are operational, she cautioned.
She hoped the 244 beacons are the first phase of many.
"I think it's going give us opportunities for other places to model after Springfield," Said said.
On a bright September day, Said stood with her iPad on Sixth Street with the app pulled up on its screen. The font on the app was large and made for easy reading, and the iPad read aloud in a staccato female voice the buttons Said pushed.
When she walked past the Abraham Lincoln Presidential and Museum, the app told her so.
One of the early adopters of the app already exists downtown. Michael Higgins, owner of Maldaner's Restaurant on Sixth Street, put beacons outside and inside of the establishment and subscribed to the app after hearing Said's presentation at a MacArthur Boulevard Association meeting a year ago.
"Google Maps can get you to the front door," Higgins said. "It doesn't tell you everything that's in the store. That's the benefit of the wayfinding app."
Not only is Higgins participating in the app, he requested wayfinding directions inside of the restaurant. Just on the first floor, a small white stick-on button can be seen above the elevator in the foyer. Other buttons are discreetly placed on walls inside the restaurant. The app offers step-by-step spoken instructions to get anywhere inside the restaurant.
Higgins said the app makes business sense, too. He markets the restaurant's use of the app and has gotten diners to download and give it a whirl.
"You can be a stagnant business all your life," Higgins said. "Or you do it because you see the vision."
The funding for app subscription comes from the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The cost of subscriptions for businesses depend on how big their space is and how much information they want to provide, Said said. After a start-up fee, subscribers who continue service pay an annual maintenance fee, which pays to replace damaged beacons. Since the city has so many beacons, it most likely will have to pay a $10,000 maintenance fee in the second year.
Having a subscription means businesses can input the information they want without going through Sensible Innovations, which can be helpful for those who want to advertise sales or different menus.
Users can go into the app and check out that information even before they leave their homes, Said said.
At the Mary Bryant Home, users often check dining menus before wandering out of their rooms, according to executive director Jerry Curry. Though he said only about five of his residents have iPhones, the home is outfitted with about 80 beacons, and home's shop sells the iBeacon technology.
"It's a cool thing," Curry said. "It would be an honor for the city of Springfield to be one of the first cities in the country to have this."
Like Said and Higgins, Curry is caught up in the possibilities. He envisioned a future in which Sangamon Mass Transit District buses and bus stops were outfitted with beacons, allowing his residents to get on and off buses at the correct destinations.
The app will make any stroll downtown into a walking tour, he said.
"Instead of reading the 45 words on the bronze plaque, you could tell a whole story," Curry said. "You could describe to the blind person what took place in 1862."