Written by The Business Journal Staff
The world is a different place for those with reduced or no sight. Just a walk across a university campus often requires the aid of another person, severely limiting a visually impaired individual’s independence.
Fresno-based software company One Sense has created a new platform, Aware, in its aim to provide the visually impaired with a new sense of freedom.
The platform, which was recently introduced on the Fresno State campus, uses proximity-based sensing to alert visually impaired students and faculty members to permanent and temporary obstructions along their path via a voice-activated app.
The Aware system is trifold. An administrative dashboard allows faculty members to create a new warning message when new landmarks are added or there is construction or another hazard. Each message is connected to a sensor that is placed on the obtrusive object. These sensors communicate with the user app to let people know when they are approaching a fence, statue, bike rack, curb, pole, fire hydrant or something else that may be in the way.
Once Sense CEO Matt Tymn said the Aware platform has already been a breakthrough for a handful of visually impaired students at Fresno State and plans to bring Aware to other universities, K-12 schools and public places and spaces are in the works.
“Our goal is to provide empowerment and independence,” Tymn said. “If we can onboard someone onto this app and within 15 minutes have them go on a walk and navigate the campus by themselves without any issues, we’ve won. And when you look at this as a university from a cost standpoint, all it takes is one. It’s worth it if you can impact the life of just one visually impaired person.”
The Aware app is compatible with both iOs and Android operating systems and is ideal for the new Apple Watch, Tymn said.
“When you fire up the app it basically lets you know if there is an obstruction nearby. For example if there is a fence, it will say ‘fence near,’” he said. “Up until this point that person would have just walked directly into the fence, but now they can use this and the sensing device — which can even be hooked to golf carts and moveable objects — will notify them.”
The app even works when the user is talking on the phone or using another app.
“It can be on in the background settings so it doesn’t even need to be active,” Tymn said. “You can be on a call and it will chirp in. That way it is always there for you.”
One Sense began developing the Aware platform in February and its first user was on-boarded at the end of March.
The Aware launch at Fresno State has proved successful, Tymn said, and it fits with the university president’s vision for equality and accessibility for everyone.
Troy Polnitz, a student support assistant at Fresno State, said six students are currently using the platform and he plans to reach out to more.
“I think what is special about it is the newfound independence it gives these students,” Polnitz said. “It can be intimidating for them to navigate a college campus, especially if they’re coming in as a freshman. This allows them to become acclimated and they’re not so afraid because they can navigate campus by themselves. It has really made these students more confident and independent.”
Before onboarding with Aware, Amanda Nelson, a visually impaired Fresno State student, was dependent on a public safety cart. Someone would always have to pick her up at the bus stop or wherever she was dropped off on campus and drive her from class to class. Thanks to Aware, she can now walk to class if she chooses.
“After I was on-boarded to the platform, I decided to cancel my safety cart pick up and use the app,” Nelson said. “All I can say is ‘wow, wow, wow!’ I felt like a kid in a candy store.”
One other student was excited just to get from the library to the health and human services building mere steps away, Polnitz said.
“It’s all about these small victories,” he said. “It is great to see these results almost immediately after onboarding them to Aware and to see their excitement and progress.”
Tymn said hearing these stories make all the hard work put into the platform worth it.
“At the end of the day, we’ve done a great thing if we can help have a positive impact on someone who is visually impaired,” Tymn said. “That’s going to make us happy and that is going to make that person happy.”