When it comes to using public transport in England’s capital, visually impaired (VI) people – of which there are more than 5,500 under the age of 25 in London – and those with sight loss, approximately two million in the UK, often have to rely on the ‘turn-up-and-go’ system, where staff provide them with assistance in getting from point A to B. Some may avoid using systems like the London Underground (LU) altogether.
Now a new smartphone app known as Wayfindr aims to remove the barriers and open a new frontier for independent travel.
The project’s beginnings
It all started in March 2014 when the Royal London Society for Blind People’s (RLSB) Youth Forum released a manifesto to represent the views of VI young people. One of the significant areas that needed addressing was travel.
"One of the things that the RLSB wanted to do was to make London one of the most accessible cities in the world for blind people," says Tom Pey, chief executive of the RLSB. "We threw out the challenge to a group of seven young people, who identified that travelling through the LU was one of the biggest difficulties they faced in their daily lives."
Development began last March, with ustwo, global digital product studio, using technology that simulates sight loss to experience what it is like for VI travellers. Following this, the team came across Estimote Beacons, also know as Bluetooth low-energy beacons.
These are small wireless sensors that broadcast radio signals. In the case of the Wayfindr software, the signals are read by a smartphone app and then translated into audio messages that provide simple directional aids via bone-conducting headphones which do not obstruct hearing – allowing users to pick up transport announcements as well as Wayfindr messages.
Getting the message right
Aside from the necessary technology to transmit the signals, what level of detail should be included in each message? Too much and the user is overwhelmed, too little and it loses its purpose.
"Clear terminology is essential," explains ustwo on its company blog. It used feedback from the RLSB to refine the messages. "Transport authorities use different terminology when they refer to specific aspects of their service, and this may not be understood by their customers.
"Although we had recorded three human voices as an alternative to the computer-generated voices used in assistive technologies, we found that users preferred to hear generated speech."
The directions are delivered "on a minimalist basis, so it’s non-interruptive", says Pey, who adds: "On the underground, or anywhere, you need to know whether to go forwards, backwards, right or left, and you need to know when you need to do that.
"What a lot of technology for blind people tries to do is give them every piece of information possible, which of course interrupts people’s hearing."
‘Welcome to Pimlico’
With the basic structure and concept of Wayfindr in place, LU was approached by the RLSB and ustwo to discover how it would work in the Tube environment.
"I’d heard of this project and what I felt was that the technology and innovation team at LU could take it forward," says Kuldeep Gharatya, head of Technical Strategy and Integration at LU. "We began working with ustwo and the RLSB and said, what is going to move this forwards in terms of a formal trial?
"We agreed, therefore, to hone the product itself, which ustwo were taking care of, and then focus on Pimlico as part of its station improvement programme. We agreed to piggyback on those works and actually install these beacons and run a more physical trial to see whether it would succeed or not."
With the backing of LU, 16 beacons were installed by LU and ustwo, with ustwo focusing on the positioning of each one. Beacon placement was important. They were positioned on ceilings to maximise signal exposure, while escalators and long hallways were studied to discover the most appropriate area.
But what is it like from a user’s point of view? When Courtney Nugent, a member of the RLSB Youth Forum, arrived at Pimlico with headphones and smartphone at the ready, she was greeted with a generic beep to indicate an instruction was to come, followed by an instruction to follow the ramp down to the ticket hall.
As she made her way down the ramp and passed another beacon, her phone decoded another signal into more messages: "You are halfway down to the ticket hall … turn left and walk down the stairs. There are nine steps."
Similar messages – including some for the ticket barrier and escalators – followed, before she reached the end of the hall. A message of "left for trains to Walthamstow" and "right for trains to Brixton" then directed her to the correct platform.
"They were really helpful," explains Nugent. "They told you how many steps there were, where to walk for the escalators and even to the point of what platform to use. I was a bit apprehensive as I had not been to the station before. It’s all about getting you there safely."
Opening a new frontier of travel?
Wayfindr’s aim is to standardise audio signage across Transport for London (TfL). Gharatya and LU describe it as creating a "seamless" navigation guide for public transport.
With one trial completed, the very first footsteps towards this goal have been taken. Now the aim is to maintain this early momentum, ensuring that Pey’s dream of a "new frontier" of travel can be realised.
"We want to try it in a number of stations across London and to widen it out to further indoor trials in public buildings," he says.
"There was enormous learning in the trial. I think one young person said when they were asked to do it, ‘I was scared, but I can’t wait for it to be in every station because there are places I can go without having to get my friends to bring me there’."
Feedback also suggested some tweaks to the placement of some of the beacons, says Pey, as they were either too close or too far away from the point of action.
It’s important, however, to maintain a sense of realism when looking at Wayfindr’s future capabilities. Despite its early success and the ease with which Nugent and her peers used the software, it should not be seen as a complete replacement for other aids, such as a long cane or assistance dog.
Rather, it complements what is already in place and will, Nugent hopes, build confidence among those who require assistance or are currently wary of travelling independently. "Our aim is not to get rid of TfL staff [who help vision-impaired users], but we’ve said before that if we have Wayfindr in place and felt comfortable using it, it becomes just about putting on a pair of headphones," she says.
The next stage could involve a larger trial at a more complex station, "like a Green Park", says Gharatya.
"This is all about taking very careful steps, not going gung-ho," Gharatya adds. "We will look at partnering with an external agency to prove the integrated transport aspects of the trial.
"We have a goal to reduce the barriers of access to transport for Londoners and we see this as one of those mechanisms."
Pey, Nugent and members of the RLSB certainly hope that this proves to be the case. As Pey says: "This is a major step towards ending isolation."