A new app that's helping blind and visually impaired travelers find their way around an airport in Kentucky could be coming to other airports next.
Using Bluetooth technology, the free "Indoor Explorer" function of the existing Nearby Explorer app transforms a smartphone into an audio guide that can tell users exactly where they are in the airport and guide them - turn by turn, step by step - to gates, ticket counters, baggage claims or the nearest Starbucks. Besides operating with the ease of a smartphone, the app provides much more interactive data about the environment inside the airport building.
The new feature for Nearby Explorer - which was developed by the American Printing House for the Blind and officially launched recently - has been in road-testing since October at Louisville International Airport. But the app's developers hope to see it replicated elsewhere so that visually impaired travelers can navigate an airport with a more detailed idea of what's around them, and without having to rely on airport personnel, inadequate signage or the kindness of strangers.
Although it's been nearly three decades since the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, and airports have made accommodations for people with disabilities, many forms of assistance for the blind and visually impaired are often at only the most basic level, said Craig Meador, president of the American Printing House for the Blind.
"In general, one of the most important things it does is it allows you to maintain your independence and your dignity," said Larry Skutchan, who has been blind for most of his adulthood and developed the app. "But even in a more practical sense, there's not always people around in an airport. I got stuck in the Detroit airport at 4:30 a.m. about six months ago, and there was nobody around."
While wayfinding apps have become more common, the Louisville-based nonprofit says its app is the first of its kind for visually impaired travelers.
Earlier this month, Amtrak announced the availability of a new app called FindYourWay to navigate New York City's sprawling and chaotic Penn Station. Amtrak's free app - which was developed with Zyter and is available for iOS and Android users - provides travelers with information on gates, trains and boarding times while also helping them to navigate to exits, ATMs and restaurants. Amtrak also plans to develop similar apps for other stations.
The American Printing House for the Blind's new wayfinding tool uses data from the OpenStreetMap database and more than 140 beacons placed inside the airport terminal to orient the app's user. The beacons interact with the phone, which gives audible information about the person's location, along with points of interest. The app also allows a person to use GeoBeam or Compass to point to locations inside the building.
Skutchan said the app transforms the experience of air travel that in a way that he described as "empowering."
"I've been going through this Louisville airport for 30 years, and I can get to the gates . . . but I never know what I'm passing," Skutchan said. "Just to see what your options are around is amazing - and liberating."
The new feature - which was created with assistance from the Louisville mayor's office and the James Graham Brown Foundation - is only available on iOS devices for now, and can be found by searching for "Nearby Explorer" in the App Store.