A project initiated by the Royal London Society for the Blind’s (RLSB) Youth Forum has led to the prototyping of a new app called Wayfinder, which has been built especially to help blind and partially sighted people use London’s transport network independently.
The app relies on smartphones and iBeacons and has been developed in collaboration with global digital product design studio ustwo. Using transport terminals already equipped with iBeacon technology, the app guides users from point to point and directions are transmitted via their smartphones through bone-conducting earphones.
As a rule, ustwo wanted to only use off-the-shelf technology and hardware that was already available in order to not make it so that youngsters weren’t forced to invest in a bespoke system. The best way to achieve this, they realised, was to build it based on Bluetooth Low Energy technology, which is already built into many smartphones.
According to the RLSB, over half of visually impaired young Londoners feel confident using the London Underground, but given that there are an estimated 9,000 visually impaired young people living in the city, there are clearly still significant challenges until every one of them feels completely comfortable using public transport.
A TfL spokesman told Wired.co.uk: “We want everyone to be able travel on our network, and are doing our best to make this happen. We’ve got a way to go yet, but measures in place for the visually impaired include tactile paving, more announcements both on platforms and on board and, crucially, our staff who are on hand to help someone with their journey.
“On our buses, drivers are now being trained to be still more open to the needs of people waiting at bus stops, particularly in case they have a disability which isn’t immediately obvious.”
Transport has been included in the RLSB Youth Forum’s manifesto as it’s been identified by all the young people involved as a universal obstacle. Particular issues highlighted by forum chair Joy in a blog post include not knowing which bus to get on when they all line up behind one another and people in busy tube stations tripping over canes or bumping into guide dogs. “Transport has come a hell of a long way and for that I am pleased, however I feel that there are both short term and long term improvements that can definitely be made,” she writes.
In order to appreciate first-hand the difficulties of navigating London with various visual impairments, Umesh Pandya who is associate UX director at ustwo travelled around the city wearing glasses that are capable of simulating a number of different eye conditions as well a member of the Youth Forum and her guide.
Observations made during the day along with feedback from a Youth Forum workshop were used to map out various scenarios and the challenges they presented. Thus began the process of creating prototypes and getting feedback from the Youth Forum — who all rely on public transport to see friends, attend college and go to work — in order to refine the system further.
“We didn’t get all the way, but our methodology helped to bring us close. We hope that ustwo and the RLSB Youth Forum can push this work forward, and close in on a human-centred solution for travel on the Tube,” writes Pandya on the ustwo blog.
More testing needs to be done and more iBeacons need to be put in place across the network before the app can be used more widely, but when and if it can it will no doubt make a huge impact on the ability of visually impaired people of any age to navigate London’s labyrinthine transport network. In a statement via RSLB, forum member Dan Smith said: “This app would increase my confidence about travelling on the tube, as I would be able to get around on my own independently just like everyone else.”