Navigating London’s Underground can feel like a labyrinth for even the most seasoned Oyster card holder, let alone for a person who has problems with their eyesight.
As well as crowds of people to contend with, there’s also the assault course of stairs and escalators to scope out, winding twists and turns and shortcuts that take you back to where you started. Couple that with the fact that everyone’s busy trying to get to their destination, you can imagine just how daunting travelling on the Tube might be for someone with eyesight issues.
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That’s not to say it’s impossible: TfL currently offer a handy system where blind people can ask for assistance to be led to the platform, with a transit worker waiting on the other end to take them back above ground.
The experience, while undoubtedly helpful, is by no means perfect for those who require it: being escorted to the platform can cause embarrassment and discomfort for many people, particularly when you just want to go about your daily life like everybody else.
Now a new technology prototype is helping visually impaired Londoners to comfortably navigate the tube solo. It’s called Wayfindr, and It’s a new system that’s being trialled by TfL to help give London’s blind community their independence back – by allowing them to hop from station to station using audio direction prompts from their smartphones.
Using Bluetooth-equipped beacons, Wayfindr lets people know where they are on the network by transmitting a signal that can be picked up by a phone, triggering an audio instruction that guides the user around the station.
Operating in a similar way to Citymapper, users can tell the app the stations they want to travel to and from, and the tech will figure out their best route.
As well as guiding them to the right stations, Wayfindr will provide handy audio prompts such as “escalator coming up” and “turn left at the bottom of the stairs” as the user walks past a series of iBeacons, which will be installed throughout each station.
The game-changing idea was created by the Royal London Society for Blind People with design firm Ustwo, after a focus group with millennials revealed that independent travel was one of the biggest issues affecting blind and partially sighted young people today. Specifically, they called for a mobile-integrated app that could help them to get them around more easily.
“The idea came from young people,” says Florence Orban, Director of Corporate Development at Royal Society for Blind, “but it will work for everyone – and that’s the beauty of it. It works for people of any age who are visually impaired.”
The idea has received £1m funding through Google Impact Challenge Disabilities programme, and has recently undergone successful trials in both Pimlico and Euston stations.
“We brought the idea to TfL”, says Orban. “We worked with their innovation team they’ve been fantastic. We did a very early demo at Pimlico in 2015 and then we did a more in depth demo at Euston station with about 30 users.”
“Now we’re looking at doing a trial of six more busy stations to understand the challenges from blind people using it regularly,” she adds.
As well as helping TfL to understand the requirements needed for visually impaired passengers, the trials will allow the transport body to figure out ways to best maintain the tool for years to come.
Wayfindr’s creators believe that it could significantly change the lives of the 2 million people in the UK who are living with sight loss.
“A lot of blind people have just two to three routes that they use regularly,” says Orban, “like to the supermarket or to their job, but by being much more confident in using public transport, it opens up a whole raft of new avenues for them.”
“For instance, using Wayfindr, they can have jobs where they have meetings in different places because they’ll have the confidence to travel solo.”
As well as helping the visually impaired, Orban says Wayfindr will also be an essential tool for people with early-onset dementia and dyslexia.
Eventually, the team hopes it will work in several different languages: making it easier tourists to navigate London’s underground system.
“We’re doing a test right now in Barcelona and we’ve also trialled in Sydney,” says Orban.
“At the moment we’re in negotiations with two transit companies in the US, which is very exciting.”
Eventually, Orban believes Wayfindr could be implemented not just in transport systems, but in busy shopping centres and visitors attractions across the globe.
So should developers be looking to use tech to make cities more inclusive?
“I think its fundamental,” says Orban.
“We know the power of accessibility, and I think that cities that are designed in an accessible manner are going to be way ahead of the game.”