Startup Wayfindr aims to help the visually impaired get around

4 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bluetooth navigation for blind tested in Euston station.

Last spring, the design studio Ustwo worked with the Royal London Society for Blind People to install Bluetooth low energy beacons in London’s Pimlico Station.A project to probe the viability of using low power Bluetooth Beacon technology as an aid for indoor navigation — with a special focus on helping blind and visually impaired people get around independently — has been awarded a $1 million grant from Google.org to broaden and accelerate its development.A network of Bluetooth beacons communicating with a navigation app has been installed in London Underground’s Euston station to enable vision-impaired people to receive turn-by-turn directions to help them find their way around.A major trial to help guide blind people on the London Underground by using their smartphones is underway at one of the capital’s busiest Tube stations.

Wayfindr’s impressive vision-impaired navigation solution got the attention from a tech giant looking to make a positive change for people living with disabilities. Dr Tom Pey, RLSB chief executive and chairman of Wayfindr, said: “Smartphones have revolutionised the lives of blind people, giving us a level of independence that 20 years ago we couldn’t have imagined. “What makes Wayfindr so strong is the focus on smartphones, meaning blind people don’t have to spend hundreds of pounds on different gadgets – they have everything they need in their pockets. The company originally intended its app to be freestanding, but testing shows that the Wayfindr app was more effective when integrated with location and navigation services. The money will help speed up the development of the technology over the next three years with the ultimate aim of making the system fit to be used across cities around the world, not only in the underground but in all urban settings including shopping centres and hospitals.

That led Wayfindr to seek to create and open and standardized guideline for tech could be deployed in transportation systems or indoor venues like malls and hospitals. Those tiny hubs sync with smartphones, and via an app, visually-impaired commuters could receive audio-based navigational instructions to reach their desired destinations. Once a vision-impaired person tells the app where they want to travel to, the app will search for the nearest beacon to connect to in order to properly guide them. The team will install the system at Euston Station, a buzzing transportation hub in central London, so it can continue gathering data to refine the technology.

The ultimate goal is to create an open standard of guidelines (due in the spring) that developers can use to create audio navigation systems for the visually impaired. These standards will aim to build consistency into a complicated environment, similar to what Massimo Vignelli’s Graphics Standards Manual did for New York’s subway system in 1970.

In terms of a likely timeframe for the first real-world deployments that might be following its Beacon tech installation guidelines Pandya says the team is hoping to see a commitment, or the start of a rollout, across “one complete network” by the end of 2017. It’s providing the solution, inviting an app developer — especially one with experience in mapping indoor spaces — to come in and complement its technology.

The guidelines will focus on technical aspects (how many beacons per square foot, what’s the proper placement, that sort of thing), but also define the language and phrasing used in audio directions. By which he means either a whole retail store or an entire transport network. “I don’t think it’s too far in the future,” he adds. “Beacons you can buy now.

Things like: Use orthogonal phrasing that’s specific to the listener—e.g. “left” and “right”—instead words like “diagonal” that require an external point of reference. (Telling someone to walk diagonally, for example, requires more information than than saying “face 10 o’clock then walk forward,” or “turn left.”) Provide reassurances that people are heading in the correct direction instead of using definite distances like “walk 10 steps.” And use short phrases. “The actual interaction needs to be as concise as possible, otherwise we overload the user with a lot of information that’s hard to process,” says Umesh Pandya, CEO of Wayfindr. It’s minor compared to bolting it on later when you then go ‘now we need to make our product accessible’… You can build that in from the beginning at minor cost. ” As well as ustwo and the RLSB, an alliance of organizations is backing the Wayfindr initiative, including app developers, locations, researchers, hardware manufacturers and vision impairment specialists. And as our world becomes more reliant on audio interfaces, it’s safe to assume that everyone—not just the visually impaired—will be glad that we’re all hearing the same thing.

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