How the blind led Warsaw to the Internet of Things

A project designed to help visually impaired people get around council buildings has been given a new lease on life as a smart city system.

A new project to be launched in Warsaw, Poland will guide blind people around the city. Image: Maksymowicz/iStock

A service that was built to help the visually impaired get around municipal offices in Warsaw is set to take on a new life as a city-wide Internet of Things network.

In a few years' time, the city of Warsaw's app will supply users with contextual real-time information on public transport, indoor navigation in public buildings, and details of tourist attractions, all based on a user's location.

'Virtual Warsaw', as the €15m project is called, is a beacon-based urban navigation scheme that started out as an aid for those with visual impairments. "We got complaints that municipal services weren't very accessible for them," said Tomasz Pactwa, head of the city's department of support and social projects. "They were unable to take the number tickets [giving them their place in the queue for council services], and if by some fluke they managed to, it was printed on a small piece of paper that they could not read anyway."

Read this

Tapping Eastern Europe's startup potential: Deutsche Telekom takes incubator to Poland

The German telco's first overseas outpost is based in Krakow and will be casting its net wide across the continent in a hunt for startups with smart ideas.

Read More

In 2013, Pactwa contacted a company from the town of Bielsko-Biala, close to the Polish borders with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which could supply the infrastructure for a project designed to change all that.

Using a system based on small beacons, a smartphone app can call out a person's queue number on their phone, and can also read out text on municipal signs using Siri on iPhone or Google Talk on Android, depending on where the user is in a building.

"It is not perfect yet," Pactwa said. "It is still in the testing phase but we are constantly improving the system." Despite that, the project won a prize at last year's Bloomberg-sponsored Mayors Challenge competition.

The plan is now to expand Virtual Warsaw well beyond helping the visually impaired. Warsaw is now planning to install beacons all over the city, to help tourists around, give live information on public transport, and find empty parking spots for motorists.

"All public buildings are to be fitted with these beacons as well, helping the visually impaired to find the entrance, as well as giving basic information: for example, the number of pupils at a given school," Pactwa said. In three years, the infrastructure should be up and running, he added.

The project also had a profound influence on the business that started the whole project.

The company from Bielsko-Biala was re-established last year as Ifinity and is known as one of Poland's successful startups, something the company owes to a project that went wrong in the past.

"We have been active in the market for a very long time developing applications," Adam Jesionkiewicz, the CEO and co-founder of the company, said. "At one point, we won a tender for a project for a large shopping mall to develop an application that would help people navigate through the building and find certain shops."

Unfortunately for Jesionkiewicz, that project ended in failure. "Technologically, it turned out to be impossible. Since it is an indoor mall, we could not use GPS to pinpoint the user's location."

Other techniques, like triangulation based on 3G antennas or wi-fi hotspots, were not accurate enough. "They have an error of about 50 metres. In order to make location work indoors, the error has to be no more than two metres."

For Jesionkiewicz, there was an epiphany when Apple announced its iBeacon project. "That same day, we started to draft ideas on how to use beacons combined with Bluetooth Low Energy for indoor navigation," he says.

Now, Ifinity sells a service to install and maintain those beacons, which communicate with smartphone apps via Bluetooth.

One difficulty facing any beacon rollout is the perception of Bluetooth that many users formed during the Bluetooth 2.0 era - that using the low-range wireless tech meant a serious battery drain.

However, while Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) is a completely different technology, most users normally have Bluetooth switched off all the same.

"That is the result of the preconception people have of Bluetooth 2.0 as a power hungry feature," he says. "I was irked a bit that the [Bluetooth standards] consortiums did not come up with a different name for that technology."

Today, people will only turn on Bluetooth when there's a specific reason or concrete benefit to do so, but Jesionkiewicz thinks that will change. There is talk from tech companies of keeping the newer Bluetooth on by default. "We are seeing a transitional period, where Internet of Things is going to become omnipresent," he said.

Normally, Ifinity refrains from building the apps that use its beacon infrastustructure, leaving the process to value-added resellers. However, "the Virtual Warsaw project is an exception, as it is so large and important for us," he said.

Nonetheless,Virtual Warsaw is meant to be an open network, rather than a walled garden system built by one party.

"There will be one base app, but parties are free to develop their own solutions on the network," says Pactwa. Currently, he has 13 parties interested in building upon the infrastructure. "Things should be working within three years, with 300,000 to one million beacons installed."

Before that happens, work will be done around how to lock down the system and the data it collects. "Security is a leading theme in IoT," Pactwa says. "We are planning to contract a public party, the Institute for Matemathical Modelling, who will be responsible for data storage and security."

The city will not harvest personal data though. "Only if a person actively supplies the app with data will it be stored. But they do not have supply any data in order to use the service."

Read more on beacons