Description

Smart audio guide

Making the Information Age, the Science Museum’s most accessible gallery ever

Introduction

5 years on from Conjure’s pioneering first Audio Eyes app for the Science Museum Information Age Gallery, we were tasked with developing an expanded update to coincide with the opening of the new Medicine Galleries. As with the original, the purpose of the application was to enable blind or partially sighted visitors to have the best possible experience by providing audio descriptions and orientation, to allow them to navigate through the gallery.

Objectives

  • Develop an interactive mobile application for both the Information Age and Medicine Galleries that builds on the success and learnings of the original Audio Eyes app
  • Optimise the use of iBeacons to increase the accuracy of user orientation
  • Create a content management system that would allow the Science Museum to update content when new versions became available

How do you build an audio guide app for the visually impaired?

Before embarking on the redevelopment of the app we examined all of the user and technical feedback that had been collated to help us fully understand how we could deliver an even better product for the next version.

The delivery process was then divided into two stages. The first, more application-oriented, was to rewrite the app using the Swift programming language and use a modern architecture that would simplify testing scenarios. The most important part of this stage was the implementation of the ranging engine – responsible for detecting which beacon is closest to the user. The final structure of the application allowed for easy testing by simply injecting different ranging class/implementation to the engine. We installed multiple beacons with varying signals all over the Conjure office to simulate an environment as close as possible to that of the galleries.

The second and a crucial part of the project was to create the prototype app and test it in real conditions. Having partial access to the Medicine Galleries as it was being built, we were able to trial around 90% of all possible beacons configurations. A challenge, due to the nature of the exhibits, was that we were not always able to place the beacons in optimal locations. After plenty of trial and error, we were able to identify two main setting profiles of beacons depending on the role of the beacon. We then had to address challenges created from the variety of materials and sizes of exhibit housings.

Our solution was to find beacons that did not work properly with our main profiles and calibrate them individually. Additional testing sessions in a ready to open space, with the Access and Inclusion specialist from the Science Museum team was a crucial step before releasing the app to the App Store. This allowed us to gain a better understanding of the requirements/needs for users with disabilities when using the app.

Challenges

The main challenge in this project surrounded the detection and positioning of iBeacons. iBeacon technology can be unpredictable due to its signal strength and can be affected by a number of things, including the beacons being too close to one another, or signal strengths being obstructed. We had to carefully analyse and test where each beacon was placed throughout the gallery to achieve the best results. We didn’t want to place them too close to one another to prevent signal overlap, however, we also wanted to make sure that any blind spots were covered by adding additional beacons to cover difficult locations.

We also had to work very closely with the iOS Accessibility features.  As the key audience for the application would be users with sight impairments, ensuring that that app worked in a way that was familiar to this demographic whilst also adhering to the accessibility guidelines and user experience patterns was paramount.

Key Results

  • A new version of the app that could operate throughout the information age and medicine galleries
  • Reduced number of beacons required (therefore lower cost)
  • By integrating TTS audio, we created flexibility in updating orientation audio without needing a new version of the app
  • Enhanced the accessibility of the museum for blind or partially sighted visitors
  • A highly technical solution to create a very personal experience

Should you wish to orient yourself at any point, simply tap the top half of the screen and the audio guide will tell you where you are. Tapping the bottom half of the screen repeats audio commentary about nearby exhibits. To make the app even easier to use, a custom iPhone case was produced that divides the screen up into distinct tactile areas.

The result was a really simple and intuitive app that helps create a more inclusive experience for the visually impaired, allowing them to explore, learn and orientate themselves within the Information Age and Medicine Galleries.

“The “Audio Eyes” application delivers beyond our original expectations and will be a shining example of inclusion for the visually impaired for years to come.”

Anne Prugnon, New Media Manager - London Science Museum