NIU’s new app helps make campus more accessible

More than 1,500 QR codes placed around NIU campus, city buses to help people with visual impairments navigate

Northern Illinois University students move between classes Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, on campus at NIU in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University recently unveiled a new digital app meant to help aid those who are blind or visually impaired around campus.

According to a university officials, NIU is the first university in the U.S. to install NaviLens, an innovative wayfinding app.

Katharine Whitelaw, an information technology accessibility officer at NIU, has spearheaded the implementation of the Spain-based accessibility app NaviLens. The smartphone app uses distinctive, black, blue, magenta and yellow codes placed on buildings, buses and navigation information signs to help the user navigate.

“For us, with normal vision, it’s signs, it’s arrows, it’s that kind of thing, and for a person who can’t see them, they’re not helpful. And I discovered this company called NaviLens,” Whitehall said. “They have a free app, which allows you to pick up these QR codes from your phone, from a distance, at an angle and while you’re moving. This helps people who can’t see the QR code get the information.”

Northern Illinois University students move between classes Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, on campus at NIU in DeKalb.

The app can read the special, QR-like, codes from up to 40 feet away, according to NaviLens. The app also can read codes with field of vision of 160 degrees.

Whitelaw said more than 1,500 NaviLens codes have been placed in 43 academic and administrative buildings on NIU’s campus, as well as city of DeKalb transit buses.

The city also has taken steps over the past few years to make the downtown more accessible. Crosswalk buttons at downtown intersections include verbal commands such as “Wait” or “Go” when the intersection is clear of cars.

For NaviLens users, the information contained within each code is verbally announced to the user and displayed on their phone’s screen when a new code is read. Crucially, that information can also be given in the preferred language of the phone’s user.

Northern Illinois University has partnered with NaviLens to help those with disabilities navigate across campus.

Linda Kocjan, NIU assistant director of ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] accommodations and special programs, recently spoke with the Daily Chronicle to share more about the program.

Daily Chronicle: What do you think of NaviLens, especially considering your job title?

Linda Kocjan: “I think it’s a really interesting product, and there’s so many different, creative uses and ways we can expand accessibility, and just ease of obtaining helpful knowledge when you’re new to an environment. We’ve really enjoyed having it so far, and we’re constantly trying to come up with new ways that we can utilize the system.”

DC: How have you gone about using this system?

LK: “So far, pretty much all around campus we have most of the public access buildings with the coding system already in place. I know they’re near anything that is like an exit, or an entrance, bathroom, a few of those kind of standard things you need to know when you’re in a building. We also have the ability to purchase customizable codes, so we have implemented the customizable codes in the bus system. [...] The Huskie bus line system, we put a code on each bus tied to that specific bus number. So if somebody – the story I was given was that somebody was visually impaired and they found a bus in the student center turnaround and they got on it, and they were sitting there for awhile because the bus driver had left to grab lunch, and they missed the bus they were waiting for. But had they had the NaviLens code they could have scanned it and realized it was the wrong bus. So we have put those [codes] on all of the buses, and you can also access the tracker system through the NaviLens code, so you can figure out which bus and how far away it is.”

DC: How was this system discovered by NIU? I was told Mrs. Whitelaw was the one who found it.

LK: “Yeah, Katy [Whitelaw] discovered the system and kind of brought it to our attention. I’ve been with the university a little over two years, so it’s been here – it kind of started about the time I got here. [...] It seems like we’ve been talking and adding NaviLens for awhile now. But [Whitelaw] found the system and we though it would be really, really helpful just to incorporate around campus, and that there’s lot of ways to utilize it. And we have an Accessibility Prioritization Committee on campus – it’s our architects, it’s myself, it’s our disability resource center personnel, and then just kind of other stakeholders as necessary – to determine where we can make campus more accessible, and how I can make campus more accessible. And so it was kind of addressed in that group as well.”

Images resembling multi-colored QR-codes are what make NaviLens work. They've been added to buildings, office doors and buses to create a network of codes for the phones of NaviLens users to detect.

DC: How much does this program cost the university?

LK: “Last year, for the first year of the rollout, about $10,000. That includes ... we had to print all of the stickers, so hundreds and hundreds of stickers were printed. And then, the customizable codes, the more you buy the cheaper they get. So, the first bunch was about $50 a code but now I think their initial cost has gone down significantly. And then there’s like a monthly maintenance fee we pay to NaviLens, so this year we budgeted about $5,000 for the upkeep, plus, you know, continuing on with new initiatives and the purchasing of more customizable codes.”

DC: Does it cost the user anything? Where do they sign up for this smartphone application?

LK: “Absolutely not. No, the app is free to use. You can download it for free, and then if a building is equipped you just turn on the app on your phone. It was initially developed with people with visual impairments in mind, so it’ll tell you the women’s restroom is 40 feet in front of you. [...] They [QR codes] were like 8-inch squares, and so those are detectable from about 60 feet away. The bigger the code is printed the farther away you can be from it, so that’s kind of handy, so if you need something outdoors we would make it a bit bigger.”

DC: Why is accessibility important for NIU?

LK: “Because we are a very diverse community. NaviLens ... also does it in the language of the phone. So people don’t have to try to stop or find somebody to assist them as much, they just need to be able to find those essential resources. And then hopefully in the future, we’re going to have the codes on the outside of every building, and it’ll link to the website. And again, everything is set up for auto-translate so it would be in the language of the phone, but it can give you like a staff directory or what’s located in that building. So, eventually, potentially visitors of campus can have a self-guided tour using the NaviLens.”

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