September 08, 2015

Finding your way, new app improves navigation for blind passengers

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Trials of a new smartphone app developed by London digital product studio ustwo in partnership with the Royal London Society for Blind People Youth Forum have shown strong potential to transform station navigation for vision impaired passengers. Kevin Smith examines the concept.

BUSY metro networks are often a challenge for passengers to navigate and use successfully, particularly when they are unfamiliar with the system. For vision impaired passengers, the challenge is even greater. Overcoming numerous steps and escalators and the complex layout of some stations can put these passengers off using this mode of transport altogether.

WayfindrIn London, many vision impaired passengers feel reasonably comfortable using surface transport independently. However, while trips on the Underground network are a turn-up-and-go experience, it does require assistance from a member of staff, eliminating their independence.

In March 2014 the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) Youth Forum issued England's first ever manifesto for vision impaired young people. Transport is one of the key issues highlighted in the document, and the RLSB Youth Forum stated that they felt that there must be a deliverable solution that could make tube travel more manageable.

London design studio ustwo was subsequently tasked with coming up with an answer. The result is Wayfindr.

This smartphone app utilises Bluetooth beacons installed at the station to provide audio instructions to the passenger through their own smart phone as they come into range. These messages are then delivered through bone-conducting headphones or their own headset in the same way that a text message is delivered and provide users with instructions of how to act: whether to turn left or right, to step on or off an escalator, or to stop and wait at a platform for the train to arrive.

Mr Umesh Pandya, ustwo's associate UX director, who led the development of Wayfindr, says the emphasis during the development phase was to utilise equipment that the vision impaired user will already possess.

"Assistive technology can be very expensive because it is often bespoke," Pandya says. "The bone-conducting headphones are the only added expense here. While the user can use their normal headphones, the advantage of these is that they sit outside of the ear and not inside allowing the user to hear other things that are happening in the station. They also work with the space quite well and at £30-40 a pair, they were cheaper than any other solution we considered."

Initially trials were conducted in cooperation with RLSB at ustwo's offices, where a select number of Youth Forum members were invited to participate in the development of a prototype to meet their needs. This was subsequently tested and presented to other Youth Forum members in early 2014.

At this point London Underground's Innovation and Technical team became involved in the project and offered ustwo the opportunity to test Wayfindr at Pimlico station on the Victoria Line. The four week trial that followed proved critical in developing a system that meets a variety of user needs.

"It was a great experience for all of the Youth Forum to be involved in this as a wider group," says Ms Katherine Payne, campaign officer at RLSB. "It was very important for the success of the concept to get the user perspective which could inform any changes that should be made to improve the journey experience. It was great for the users as well, many of whom have felt excluded from using the underground in the past. This provided them with the opportunity to do something about it."

In total 20 battery-powered bluetooth beacons were installed at Pimlico, with 12 in use and eight left in redundancy and all installed on ceilings to maximise signal exposure. The signal pulse was increased by 10 times during the trials to maintain accurate location data, and Pandya says using Bluetooth technology over GPS increased accuracy of the system and avoided the need for an underground mobile signal. The beacons are also a very affordable solution at less than £15 per individual unit, which would inevitably increase the attractiveness to operators of installing the system across their network.

Feedback

Feedback from live trials played an important part in tweaking the system, which ranged from adjusting the position of the beacons to altering the messages to use simple and concise instructions which were delivered only at significant waypoints. Twelve users were involved in the live trials which took place over two weeks, with some users partially sighted and some completely blind, which provided a range of user needs. For many it was the first time they had visited Pimlico, and after using Wayfindr, it was also the first time that they had navigated an underground station from the entrance to boarding a train without requiring assistance from anyone else.

"One of the advantages of using Pimlico was that it allowed us to walk before we tried to run," Payne says. "There are no interchanges with other lines at the station, it is a simply straight down the escalator and then turn left or right."

Among the changes that were implemented during the trials included eliminating communication of the number of metres or steps between certain locations, while a generic beep sound was used to alert the user of an upcoming instruction. Intermediate feedback and information about the number of stairs was useful to reassure the user that they remain on the right track, while computer-generated voices rather than human voices were also preferred.

Reflecting on the trials, users commented on the clarity of the instructions and the potential for the solution to save time and make their journey far less stressful. For example users would not have to worry that a member of staff is available at the station to assist them, which is often a problem at night.

"I felt empowered with the accuracy of the directions and I really felt like any other commuter walking down on my own to catch the train," says Kevin, a vision impaired young person, in a blog post about his experience using
the app. "I felt that Wayfindr guided me on my first steps to independence on the tube and could have a huge impact on the lives of blind and partially sighted people."

The success of the initial Wayfindr trial at Pimlico is leading ustwo to explore further opportunities to rollout the system. Pandya says that discussions are underway with "partners" but that no decision has been made yet on how the system might be utilised elsewhere. However, he is in no doubt about its potential.

"It is definitely scalable," Pandya says. "It does not use that much technology and it will hold up with multiple users.

He adds that an expansion of the service offered by Wayfindr is conceivable. For example additional beacons could deliver real-time travel updates and station information.
Indeed the possibilities are vast, and if the early success is anything to go by, Wayfindr might be set to play a critical role in the future of station navigation.

"We could also offer different languages to help tourists navigate the system," Pandya says. "We're not just excited to improve travel for vision impaired people but also believe it is potentially useful for everyone. That's where the true value is."

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