Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Wayfindr uses bluetooth “beacons” and audio navigation to guide users through labyrinthine stations.
There’s a lot going in a subway station, with seas of hurried commuters rushing past one another to reach the many entrances and exits scattered around. For blind or visually-impaired riders, it can be intimidating to navigate around the chaos—and that can take a toll on their confidence in taking public transport and traveling independently.
In fact, the Royal London Society for the Blind (RLSB) found that a quarter of the vision-impaired youth they surveyed were nervous about taking buses, trains, or the London Underground. Over half didn’t feel confident about making transfers at transportation hubs.
All sorts of innovation exists to instill that confidence, from 3D-printed maps to apps that rate the accessibility of different businesses. The latest addition comes from RLSB, which teamed up the London-based design studio Ustwo to create an app that helps riders with visual impairments navigate underground subways.
Called Wayfindr, the mobile app locates the user’s location within a subway station by picking up signals emitted from bluetooth “beacons” that have been strategically placed throughout. The signals prompt the app to provide spoken instructions that tell users which station they’re entering, for example, how many steps a particular staircase has, and which trains are to their right and left. The app even issues an alert when users approach the end of an escalator.
To create the app, the team had to separate themselves from the “pixel perfect precision” thinking used in visual design, the digital creator Umesh Pandya told the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). They had to consider the nuances of word choice, such as telling users to walk “left” or “right” rather than “diagonally,” he told Wired last year.
He also hopes to work with different organizations to bring the app to all kinds of indoor spaces, like retail stores. But the creators envision the app to be more than just a standalone product. In December 2015, Wayfindr—which separated from Ustwo to become its own nonprofit company—received a $1 million grant from Google as part of its disabilities impact challenge to take their project a step further. With help from the grant, the company is creating the first open standard for audio wayfinding apps that can be used by developers around the world.
The app and technology have been tested in a few underground stations in London and Sydney, and Pandya said trials may make their way to the United States and a handful of other cities.
“Globally, we hope that the open standard will help the market for blind navigation services really take off,” Pandya said in a statement.