Penn State

IBeacon helps visually impaired students find their way around Penn State campus

Madeline Garber demonstrates a new beacon service to assist visually impaired students find their way around campus on Thursday, July 16, 2015.
Madeline Garber demonstrates a new beacon service to assist visually impaired students find their way around campus on Thursday, July 16, 2015. CDT photo

Getting lost on campus is a grand tradition, a collegiate rite of passage to which even the best and the brightest in State College eventually succumb — with the possible exception of Madeline Garber.

For starters, Garber won’t be attending Penn State this coming semester. Instead, the newly minted freshman will be matriculating to Muhlenberg College with almost a month’s time on a college campus already under her belt.

Garber and 23 other students will spend a total of three weeks at Penn State, learning how to navigate busy walkways and crowded cafeterias, an important skill set for any freshman — even more so when you’re blind.

This is the second year that the Summer Academy for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired has set up shop in State College. Sponsored in part by the state Department of Labor and Industry’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services and the Bureau of Special Education Training and Technical Assistance , the camp is looking to prepare students for the obstacles awaiting them on campus.

Campers will attend actual Penn State classes in addition to lessons on daily living skills, mobility and team building and recreation.

“It’s giving students the real-life experience of what it’s like to be in college,” said Karen Walsh-Emma, a district administrator with the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Garber also may have helped to teach Penn State a thing or two.

On Thursday, Garber and the camp held a demonstration of the iBeacon, a low-energy Bluetooth device that can provide students — blind and sighted alike — with a better sense of orientation indoors.

The demonstration began in Atherton Hall, where Garber — cane and iPhone in hand — traveled across several pathways and busy roads to the cafeteria at Pollock Commons.

Outdoors, she was guided by an app called Blind Square, which tells users where they are, where they are going or what is surrounding them — whether it be a potential obstacle or a Panera Bread.

Garber wore specially designed headphones that allowed her to clearly hear the instructions coming from her iOS device without completely stifling the sounds of the world around her.

“I feel that I can be a lot more independent while using it,” Garber said.

The GPS-driven Blind Square works best outdoors, but once inside it requires the enhancement of the iBeacon, a small Bluetooth device that can transform abstract space into navigable terrain.

Doug Williams, an educational consultant with PaTTAN, placed 13 iBeacons throughout campus, one outside of Atherton Hall and the other 12 inside the Pollock Dining Commons.

For the purpose of the demonstration, Williams and his team installed the iBeacons inside the dining hall after hours, placing units resembling ant traps under food stations, near the dishwasher and even in the kitchen.

“I can’t tell you how cooperative the managers over at Pollock were,” Williams said.

Garber entered the dining hall during the lunch rush but continued to maneuver easily through the crowd.

Similar to how she had been guided outside, an electronic voice told Garber when she was approaching the cashier, the entree line and even the salad bar.

Since the drink selection inside the dining hall remains consistent, Williams said they were able to program the iBulletin to list the soda and beverage choices in the order they appeared.

Williams said that iBulletins have already been installed at a few airports and hotels and could even be put to use on buses.

“This is something that can grow the more you use it,” Williams said.

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