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.'
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.'
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.