User testing wayfinder app on the London Underground

Disability Innovations – iBeacons help blind people conquer the Tube

Disability Innovations is a blog series that gathers some of the most interesting new products and services that aim to make disabled people’s lives easier. We hope it will inspire more innovation in the disability field.

What is it?

We all love to talk about how stressful travel in London is – particularity on the underground. Our usual complaints (the sights, the smells, the tourists standing on the left) pale into insignificance when compared with the challenge of navigating the system with a visual impairment.

Wayfindr is an app that aims to help blind and visually impaired people to use the London Underground (LU) more easily and independently, by giving the user accurate audible directions as they make their way through the station. A trial has just been undertaken at Pimlico station, and the hope is that if successful it will be rolled out across the LU and other transport networks.

“When I tested the app at Pimlico last week for the first time it was awesome, it made me feel free.” Courtney, Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) Youth Forum member.

Who did it?

The project was born out of the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) Youth Forum, which in March 2014 highlighted travel as a key issue. They collaborated with ustwo (a studio which builds digital products and services) to develop the Wayfindr app. After an initial trial RLSB and ustwo approached LU to see how they could use this technology.

How does it work?

Bluetooth ‘iBeacons’ transmit signals that are picked up by the Wayfindr app, which uses them combined with ustwo’s positioning technology to work out where the user is. From this information the user is given audible directions which guide them around the ticket hall, down stairs and escalators, and onto the platform.  Directions are received though bone-conduction headphones, which are unique as they allow users to continue to hear what’s going on around them.

Young visually impaired Londoners involved with the charity were involved in testing the Wayfindr app. Feedback was positive, with those who were initially insecure reporting feeling more confident at the end of the trial sessions. There were some constructive points that will be addressed in future trials, and more iBeacons would need to be put in place before it can be used more widely.

Check out RSLBs Wayfindr page and video for more information about the trial and how the technology works.

What’s the dream?

The results of the trial will inform how this technology could work on the underground, to help fulfil the ambition of standardising all this technology and make it seamless across the transport network. Ustwo are also aiming to try out Wayfindr with multiple modes of transport, using various technologies to complement beacons for more accurate navigation.

If it is rolled out, it would offer a simple way for thousands of people to navigate public transport, making a dramatic difference to visually impaired people’s lives.

Why we like it

This ground breaking trial has been driven directly by a group of young people and the real issues they face, and has been achieved through close collaboration between charity and private company. We love how this technology is being developed on an open basis, to allow other developers to take the technology forward and build apps that work with the beacons. We hope the results of the trial mean that this is adopted across the London Underground and that other transport providers are encouraged to invest in this area.

This blog is for information only. Scope does not endorse this product or service. We try to make sure our information is up to date and accurate at the time of publishing.

To tell us about a Disability Innovation, please email innovation@scope.org.uk.