Young vision impaired Londoners set a new direction for Tube travel
A ground-breaking trial is underway at Pimlico Tube station to assist blind and partially sighted people to navigate independently, using Bluetooth beacons and a smartphone app.
The Wayfindr system has been developed by ustwo, a studio which builds digital products and services, in response to the RLSB Youth Forum's desire to be able to navigate London Underground (LU) without assistance.
The beacons transmit a signal that can be picked up by smartphones and mobile devices. Wayfindr uses these signals with ustwo's indoor positioning technology to locate itself and give audible directions to the user. The app is paired with commonly available 'bone conduction' earphones that do not prevent wearers from hearing the sounds around them.
After an initial trial, ustwo and RLSB approached LU to see how the technology could work in the Tube's unique environment. ustwo and LU's Technology and Innovation team have partnered to jointly fund a month's testing of the technology. Sixteen Bluetooth low energy beacons have been installed at Pimlico station and young vision impaired Londoners involved with the charity are now testing Wayfindr on the Underground.
Wayfindr's ambition is to standardise all audio signage across TfL, offering a seamless and simple way to navigate public transport. In its current form, the app talks the user through the station using directions triggered by the Bluetooth beacons - guiding them around the ticket hall, down escalators and stairs and safely onto the platform.
Courtney Nugent, RLSB Youth Forum member, said: 'I am so happy to see Wayfindr come to life, the journey from an idea that came up in a Youth Forum meeting 18 months ago, through the Youth Manifesto, to seeing a working trial on the Underground is fantastic. When I tested the app at Pimlico last week for the first time it was awesome, it made me feel free.'
Most accessible cities
Dr. Tom Pey, Chief Executive of the RLSB, congratulated the blind young people who made this breakthrough a reality: 'You are leading the way in making London one of the most accessible cities in the world. You have demonstrated the creativity and tenacity to change the transport system of London; I believe there ought to be amazing opportunities for young people like you. The next step is making London the top city in the world for employing blind people.'
Isabel Dedring, Deputy Mayor for Transport, said: 'This is another great example of how London is leading the way in making public transport more accessible for everyone. These trials will hopefully prove that this sort of technology works in real life situations and will give people more freedom and confidence to travel around our Capital.'
Technology and innovation
Mark Evers, LU's Director of Customer Strategy, said: 'We are delighted to be able to support this trial, which has developed directly from the desire of young visually impaired people to get around on their own. While we have staff at all Tube stations to assist people whenever they need, we're always keen to see how technology and innovation can help open up and make our networks more accessible. As well as testing an exciting new technology, the trial is giving us valuable information to help us understand and design for the future needs of our visually impaired customers.'
Umesh Pandya at ustwo said: 'We're looking forward to working with TfL, as innovation partners, on several ongoing projects helping to define the future of digital travel-related experiences. Wayfindr came from Invent Time, an initiative at ustwo that gives us the opportunity to explore diverse areas including energy, wellbeing, mobility and education. Using our expertise in design and emerging technologies, we aim to partner with pioneering organisations such as the RLSB to create products that make a difference.'
LU provides a 'turn-up-and-go' assistance service so that people who want to be guided through stations do not need to book in advance. Throughout 2015, staff are moving from behind ticket windows to ticket halls, gate lines and platforms, to offer assistance to customers where it is needed most. There will be more LU staff on platforms than before and across the network, there will be more staff visible and available than ever to help customers buy the right ticket, plan journeys and ensure they feel safe and secure as they travel. All stations will remain staffed at all times while train services are operating. Sixty-six Tube stations are currently step-free and around 40 more Underground and Overground stations will become step-free over the next ten years, including major stations such as Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Vauxhall and Victoria.
- The trial, running from 2 February to 13 March 2015, is designed to investigate how audio wayfinding could work across the TfL network, explore how visually impaired customers of London Underground can navigate safely and independently, and establish how beacons work within the architecture of the Tube and around large volumes of people.
- Wayfindr is being developed on an open basis, so that if the technology was to be taken forward, other developers would be free to build apps that worked with the beacons. Wayfindr is not a commercial product. At present it is the testing of a prototype which, if successful, will lead to further trials.
- Wayfindr provides general directions similar to signage in stations and is not designed to replace the long cane or assistance dog that is a primary mobility aid for partially sighted people. Beyond the visually impaired community it could have wider applications for non-English speakers, and others who have difficulty navigating stations.
- Isolation and poverty. This is the untold story of childhood sight loss. It's time to change the game for blind children and young people. At the Royal London Society for Blind People, our expert family therapists work side by side with parents, to support blind young Londoners to discover the skills and confidence they need to take control of their life. We're a hard-working, game-changing, mould-breaking organisation, set on ensuring that every blind young person should have the chance to live life without limits. More at www.rlsb.org.uk
- RLSB's Youth Forum was set up to act as a megaphone for vision impaired young people in London and the South East and to unearth potential solutions to challenges faced by blind young people, such as employment, transport and accessible technology. The Youth Forum is made up of vision impaired people aged between 16-25. The Forum meets regularly to advise on the needs and aspirations of vision impaired young people and act as a voice for the wider community it represents.
- In March 2014 the RLSB Youth Forum released England's first ever manifesto for vision impaired young people. It represents the views of vision impaired young people, to bring the community together and make changes that will improve life for future generations of vision impaired young people. One of the key issues highlighted in the manifesto is transport:
- 'Just like many young people our age, particularly in London, we rely on public transport to get around, to see our friends, get to college and to work. Unlike our sighted peers we cannot learn to drive; we have no choice but to rely on public transport and other people to get around.
- 'Just over half of the vision impaired young people we spoke to feel confident using the London Underground, but this still leaves almost half of our peers unable to make full use of the network.'
- ustwo designs digital products and services with the world's leading brands from studios in New York, Malmö, Sydney and London. Its evolved studio model creates a platform for meaningful investment in joint venture and own product initiatives. ustwo invests heavily in its 220 people and culture, retaining and developing the best design and engineering talent in the game. More at www.ustwo.com
- The beacons are manufactured by technology start-up Estimote