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Wayfindr – setting the Standard

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 16

Luana Salles finds out more about what transport providers are doing to improve the experience for visually impaired people.

It’s 7pm in the middle of the week. London’s jam-packed post-work rush hour sends a river of people into Euston station, clogging the once spacious entrance hall you’re desperately trying to cross. It feels like the station’s 43 million yearly ridership is flooding the building all at once and heading down to the Underground, forcing you to squeeze in between the short-tempered businessman and the wandering tourist in your path to just about catch the right Tube train. Now imagine doing all of that when you’re blind. 

About one in every 30 people in the UK lives with sight loss, but many don’t have the privilege of being able to travel around confidently – especially not in the capital. But infrastructure can be difficult if not impossible to change, so accessibility isn’t always a matter of creation; it’s a matter of adaptation – finding a way to stitch technology into the fabric of everyday life. 

Transport for London (TfL) partnered with the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) and digital product studio ustwo to do exactly that: use the existing Euston station infrastructure to pilot Wayfindr, a pioneering, open standard digital navigation system designed to guide visually impaired people through the Underground. 

Audio directions

The prototype smartphone app interacts with Bluetooth beacons installed throughout the station to give users audio directions: “Welcome to Euston station – for London Underground trains, walk forward and take the escalator down to the ticket hall.” 

The station trial has been running since November 2015 and will culminate in a Wayfindr Standard of audio navigation in January 2016. The Standard – the first guideline of its kind – will specify detailed requirements for a consistent and reliable digital navigation system available above or below ground. This includes specifying elements such as how distance should be expressed, what features will be identified by the beacons, audio clarity requirements and how frequently instructions should be updated. The Wayfindr Standard will be non-commercial and open to all, but will guarantee that the design and user experience of future navigation systems for visually impaired people are consistent with the findings of Euston station’s trial. 

Beacon2 c. Sophie Mutevelian, TfL

As well as helping spread the Standard to other stations, TfL’s groundbreaking trial will thoroughly investigate how the system could be installed and maintained in the long term on the Tube. Over the next few weeks, the trial will generate a full set of requirements for use of an indoor navigation system within London Underground stations to ensure it “remains fit for purpose, available and maintainable”. 

David Waboso, London Underground’s capital programmes director, said: “There’s a lot of logistics around this that we have to get right if we were to decide to use it elsewhere. But so far, the results have been promising. We just want to make sure, though, that we understand everything there is about where you put it, how you maintain it, how you get access to it, and all that kind of stuff – and that’s what we’re working on now.”

Confident travelling 

The trial is learning from several participants in a series of controlled tests – including three women from the RLSB Youth Forum, one of whom commented: “It made me feel a little bit more like a Londoner. You can get shoved in the Underground, but I feel like that’s what travelling in London is all about. We can be in the midst of things a little bit more rather than having a person guiding us and making sure we keep away from everybody.” 

The project, devised by the Youth Forum as part of ustwo’s Invent Time programme, was brought to life by a $1m grant last year, which will accelerate Wayfindr’s work over the next three years. 

User2 c. Sophie Mutevelian, TfL

“We’ve been supporting Wayfindr from its infancy, and are delighted to see it taking off. Our trial at Euston is really putting the system through its paces, to see whether it can fulfil its promise at one of London’s busiest Tube stations,” Waboso said. 

“Ultimately, this innovative project is about giving our vision-impaired customers the flexibility to travel with the same independence and spontaneity as everyone else. We’re excited to see what this technology can do to make London an even more open and accessible city.” 

A new dawn for London routes 

The project is similar in concept to Microsoft’s 3D Soundscape Technology prototype, a headset currently being devised with Guide Dogs UK. It interacts with a smartphone’s GPS and accelerometer sensors while picking up on prompts from Bluetooth beacons scattered around the street – thus providing 3D sounds and directions while still allowing the user to hear background noises. Trials are being carried out on journeys between Reading and the centre of London. That idea is “still very much in the proof-of-concept phase”, however. 

With these and other ideas in the pipeline, it seems like real accessibility – beyond just step-free platforms and scooter-friendly trains – is edging closer.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]

(Images credit: Sophie Mutevelian, TfL)


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