Empowering the Vision Impaired with Indoor Navigation Tech

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In 2014, members of the Royal Society for Blind Children’s (RSBC) Youth Forum produced a manifesto. Amongst other things, they highlighted difficulties using the London Underground independently as a major barrier to them living full and independent lives. They were not, and are not, alone. In the United Kingdom, 79% of people living with sight loss face serious difficulties trying to access public transport and nearly half of them do not leave their homes as often as they would like to. In London alone, 350,000 people won’t go out without a sighted guide.

Members of the Youth Forum came up with a challenge: they wanted to be able to travel by themselves on the Underground using only everyday readily available technology to help them, i.e. the smartphones in their pocket. Wayfindr, a non-profit partnership between RSBC and digital studio ustwo, was born in response to this challenge. Since early 2015, Wayfindr has been on a mission to enable blind and vision impaired people to travel independently and spontaneously all over the world.

The Challenge of Indoor Navigation

We quickly realised that indoor audio navigation was the key to enabling independent travel. While many vision impaired people were used to using GPS systems outdoors along with their primary mobility aids to get around, the GPS signal was not strong enough to be used indoors, and most buildings were not mapped like the streets of our towns and cities. However, recent advances in indoor navigation and indoor positioning systems which do not rely on GPS signals have led to an emerging market for indoor navigation applications, many of which are delivered through a smartphone. Indeed, Deloitte estimates that by 2022, 25% of all uses of navigation apps will be for indoor journeys and consumers will come to expect them to be universally available.

In early 2015, Wayfindr, along with a group of vision impaired users, developed a prototype indoor navigation application based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons. We then approached Transport for London (TfL), who facilitated a trial at Pimlico Underground Station. The trial results were positive, successfully establishing a proof-of-concept for an audio navigation system for vision impaired people and showing that vision impaired people would use indoor navigation if available.

The Lightbulb Moment

It was at this stage that the Wayfindr team realised that there was a unique opportunity to have a much bigger, transformational, and global impact. Indoor navigation has fantastic potential to improve accessibility for vision impaired people. However, if a wide range of navigation apps with a wide range of ways of delivering information came to market, it is unlikely that large numbers of vision impaired people would use these apps as they would never know exactly what type of information any one app would provide.

To address this issue, and ensure that indoor navigation is accessible to vision impaired users from the beginning, Wayfindr created the Wayfindr Open Standard for Audio Navigation, a freely-available Open Standard built on consensus and user-centred design with the help of a range of experts. The Standard gives building owners and application developers all the information they need to develop and deploy accessible audio navigation systems. The Open Standard was in development for over a year, involving input from vision impairment organisations, academics, application developers, vision impaired people. Following its publication, Wayfindr began work with the International Telecommunications Union, a branch of the United Nations dealing with standards for telecommunications. In early 2017, the Wayfindr Open Standard was officially adopted as an ITU Recommendation, meaning it is officially recognised in 193 countries all over the world.

Our ultimate goal is that the Open Standard is adopted by all indoor navigation offerings, ensuring the widest range of people can benefit from it. Adoption of the open standard will give VI people a wide choice of accessible venues and navigation apps, giving them the freedom to travel independently and play a full part in society. If a range of fragmented solutions emerge, with different ways of giving information and guidance, adoption in the VI community will be much lower and this opportunity to empower vision impaired people to navigate independently will be lost.

Of course, these big ambitions bring their own challenges. As with any startup, resources and headcounts are a big challenge, especially when we are looking to generate global transformation. In the rapidly growing indoor navigation market, there are a huge number of solution providers and we need to reach all of them to encourage them to make their solutions accessible. Thankfully, more and more developers understand the benefits of using an inclusive design approach and that services designed to be accessible for VI people can also easily be used by people suffering from cognitive impairments, such as dementia, or print disabilities.

More specifically for accessible indoor navigation, the technology will need to adapt to the specific needs of people who use either a long cane or a guide dog, as well as those who do not use a primary mobility aid. In developing the Open Standard, it is crucially important for us to understand what elements of an audio navigation system absolutely need to be standardised and what elements should be left to the choice of the user or app provider. Standardising too many elements would make it more difficult for developers to use the standard, while standardising too few would not provide the consistent user experience that is fundamental to widespread user adoption.

Plans for an Inclusive Future

In late 2017, Wayfindr was the beneficiary of a generous grant from the Big Lottery Fund. This funding will allow Wayfindr to develop a training course for accessibility professionals on audio navigation and the Wayfindr Open Standard. This will allow them to include audio navigation as part of their accessibility solutions for new and renovated buildings. Helpfully, the revised British Standards Institute (BSI) Standard for Accessibility of the Built Environment (BSI 8300) now recognises audio navigation systems as a method of improving accessibility.

Wayfindr will also develop a venue and software certification program. This will allow buildings and apps to show that they provide accessible audio navigation. Certified venues and apps will be listed on the Wayfindr website, making it easy for vision impaired people to find out where they can use standardised, accessible audio navigation services.

The global indoor navigation market is expected to be worth nearly $41 billion by 2022, growing by 40 to 50% per year. This rapid growth will see indoor navigation services rapidly become available to users all over the world. By giving people the knowledge and tools to make these services accessible, there is the potential to change the lives of vision impaired people around the world by giving them the freedom to travel independently.

Written by Tiernan Kenny of Wayfindr.

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