When Umesh Pandya discussed New Year’s Resolutions for 2013 with his wife Bhavi (an Optometrist), he made a commitment to help people living with sight loss, an issue “which remains close to our hearts”.
Since then his Wayfindr navigation system for partially sighted and blind users of transport has received support from Transport for London, Department for Transport (via the KTN promoted DfT T-TRIG grant scheme) and most recently from Google.org.
“For me”, said Umesh on his latest blog post, “the Wayfindr standard is a perfect example of my belief that designing to be accessible to extreme users, helps create a product that is accessible and valuable to all”.
Latest trial at a major underground station
As a result of support from Google, last month (Friday 4 December 2015) Transport for London announced details of a further, extended, trial of Wayfindr at Euston London Underground station, the first installation of the iBeacons based system at a major station on the network.
This trial builds on a pilot project at Pimlico station in February 2015, and a cross-modal test of the technology extending the system to include a bus stop outside Pimlico station.
The bus stop trial investigated application of the Wayfindr standard across a wider transport environment and was supported by grant funding provided by the Department for Transport under its T-TRIG (Transport Technology Innovations Grant).
The trial, with support from Transport for London’s Technology & Innovation team, was considered successful. However, user feedback showed that addressing the challenge of navigating the Underground was a higher priority than navigating at surface level for many visually impaired users.
Wayfindr is an open standard for audio-based navigation, stemming from a collaboration between ustwo (a digital product studio) and the RLSB Youth Forum - used to empower vision-impaired people to move independently through their environment. Wayfindr system uses Bluetooth Low Energy beacons to transmit a signal to mobile phones. The app is then able to locate the user and give audible directions to guide them through stations.
The latest trial guides participants through Euston Tube station, giving audio directions from a prototype smartphone app that interacts with beacons installed throughout the station.
LU commissioned the trial to find out if the system can work reliably across the Tube network and to test and refine Wayfindr's standards for audio navigation.
Three year support from Google.org
Through the RLSB, Wayfindr was awarded a $1m grant by Google.org in 2015 as part of the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities program, which invites applications from projects that seek to solve problems for people living with disabilities, through technology. The grant is expected to accelerate the work of Wayfindr over the next three years.
Wayfindr will build on its experience in London to set the standard to make cities worldwide more accessible to the vision impaired. Having developed its expertise alongside LU, Wayfindr will begin trials in other urban settings, including retail environments and hospitals.
LU's trial at Euston Tube station runs from November 2015 to January 2016. It is investigating how the Wayfindr Standard can be applied at a large and complex underground site, including thorough investigation of how the system works for users and how it could be installed and maintained long term on the Tube.
The trial will result in a full set of requirements for use of an indoor navigation system within LU stations that ensure it remains fit for purpose, reliable, available and maintainable. The trial is not publically open to all customers, but involves controlled tests of the system by vision impaired participants.
Standard to launch in early 2016
According to Transport for London, a Wayfindr Standard will launch in early 2016, setting the first guidelines for audio navigation for vision impaired people. The standard, developed through rigorous user research in live environments, will give location owners and makers of digital navigation services the tools to empower vision impaired people to independently navigate urban settings with the phone in their pocket. Compliance with the Wayfindr Standard is intended to let vision impaired people know that a place or app is a reliable aid to independent travel.
Improving accessibility in London
Mayor of London, Boris Johnson MP said, “We're always striving to find new and innovative ways to help give more people the confidence to travel on our transport network. The Wayfindr project is a great example of our wider work to improve accessibility in London, which includes hundreds of millions of pounds invested into step-free stations and new trains designed to be accessible to all. I look forward to the results of this hugely exciting trial, which is making use of the latest smartphone technology to help vision impaired people get around our city more easily.”
David Waboso, LU's Capital Programmes Director, added, “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. 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.”
Imagine if vision impaired people were able to access complete end-to-end journeys across the world
Umesh Pandya, CEO of Wayfindr - previously Associate User Experience Director at ustwo, this week added his personal response this week having witnessed as the trials gets underway, “During our recent trials at London Euston, I saw the confidence of our vision impaired participants increase within just one journey through the station - something they had not done independently before. Now imagine what would happen if vision impaired people were able to access many complete end-to-end journeys across the world. Making this a reality is at the heart of Wayfindr and is why I get out of bed in the morning.”