Eyesight has always been the most dominant of our senses. From prehistoric activities of foraging food, growing crops, and rearing animals to modern practices of reading, writing, using various tools, and driving vehicles—we have been relying on our eyes for everything. But let’s consider for a moment—Could we live as well if we couldn’t see properly? Although this may frighten you and me, visual impairment, i.e. the gradual loss of eyesight, eye illnesses or conditions and blindness, is a real phenomenon.
The World Health Organization reported that in 2019 there were at least 2.2 billion people worldwide with visual impairment or blindness. So, an alarming number of people are extremely hindered in everyday tasks like travelling, shopping, going to workplaces or educational institutes, interacting with people, and navigating new circumstances.
In response, we can support people who are visually impaired in two foundational ways. First, we can raise awareness about the ways everyone can practically help the visually impaired population. Second, we can install special technological solutions in strategic locations like large shopping centres, big markets, educational institutes, and railway stations to directly support their outdoor activities.
Arriving at the Best Way to Help People with Visual Impairment
From within the scope of business, an Australian tech start-up, BindiMaps, has created the world’s first and only indoor guidance and navigation system, especially for people who are visually impaired. This service comes as a free app that people can download on their phones, helping its users to easily navigate large and complex public spaces through verbal guidance.
Thanks to BindiMaps’ immense usefulness, many Australian organizations, leading businesspersons and people who are visually impaired have been acknowledging it as a revolutionary and historic step towards a more inclusive society. The idea of the technology that is now solving a huge societal problem was originally conceived to help the start-up’s CEO and Co-founder Dr. Anna Wright overcome a personal vision-related crisis.
Around 20 years ago, Dr. Anna began to lose sight in her right eye and was diagnosed with an extremely rare eye condition. After consulting with countless doctors, going through tests and taking drugs, it was discovered that she may inevitably lose vision in her left eye as well.
As Dr. Anna started preparing for a life without vision, her single biggest challenge was travelling to and back from work. How was she going to catch a train or a bus? How could she know if there was a Braille sign in public places? How could anyone with vision impairment know where Braille signs were? Looking for an answer, she keenly followed the tech space, hoping for special maps that captured the inside of buildings to arrive, but nothing came up.
So, Dr. Anna herself began conceptualizing ways to map interiors of large public spaces using technology, especially for people with visual impairment. Fortunately, when she submitted her ideas to a start-up accelerator program, its bright potential was recognized, and its subsequent growth was supported. BindiMaps was officially set up in 2017, in Sydney, Australia, to innovate for a noble cause.
As BindiMaps initially set out to restore independence and confidence to people who are visually impaired in their day-to-day lives, it also encountered obstacles. Dr. Anna reveals that in talking to people, a quite common question was: “How many blind people are there anyway?” Most people weren’t aware of the fact that one in every 42 Australians was vision-impaired or blind. Soon, she further discovered that almost all building managers weren’t prepared at all to cater to people with visual impairment. All of this clearly meant that raising awareness was going to be a crucial responsibility.
Helping People who are Visually Impaired Regain Independence
“We see BindiMaps as a way to positively impact the lives of those living with disability, while also creating a lot of convenience for everyone. BindiMaps is short for ‘Be Independent’, which is what we want for everyone, especially for those with vision impairment and other disabilities,” Dr. Anna explains.
The start-up had invested a lot of time and energy, even seeking help from prominent non-profit organizations such as Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, Royal Society for the Blind and Vision Australia, to properly develop its technology. To illustrate its working, Bluetooth beacons along with algorithms accurately locate a user’s phone in space, dynamically updating routing algorithms as users move through a space.
BindiMaps’ clients are large building and facility owners. By installing this service, they have the opportunity to improve the overall visitor experience. Specifically, they can make their spaces more accessible, inclusive, and also reduce touchscreen wayfinding. Considering the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the ability to move as quickly and efficiently as possible without touchscreen wayfinding is a big advantage.
For the visually impaired community, BindiMaps offers an alternative to visual signage, providing information about a public space as well as navigation guidance. Inside of a BindiMapped location like a big shopping centre, users can search for destinations or categories of destinations and receive verbal guidance or special blue line map guidance to wherever they want to go.
“We also provide specific information about items in the space—points of interest that you may miss if you are blind or vision impaired. We also have a function called a BindiLink—which allows you to share your location with someone else or you can pin your car so you can find it again in the car park,” says Dr. Anna.
Envisioning a Society that Consciously Supports People with Disabilities
BindiMaps is directly supporting the visually impaired community overcome the major obstacle of physical access in their daily lives today. So, it’s essentially empowering them to work, travel and live with independence, confidence, and ease.
Seeking improvement, the start-up collects anonymised data about building use—including searches, dead searches, dwell times, directional flows and many more data points, to provide clients with useful insights. It’s also developing wheelchair accessible as well as autism spectrum routing preferences, expanding its benefits to many more people who need help. “I have a particular love of education. According to Vision Australia, tertiary education provides a 60% higher likelihood of full-time employment for someone with vision impairment. I’d love to install BindiMaps at all places of education and work, so that people with disability can create and contribute, not just consume,” expresses Dr. Anna.