Wayfindr is a digital system that lets blind people navigate London's tube by sound. Image: Sophie Mutevelian

It’s Up to Developers to Bring This Amazing Audio Wayfinding App to Blind People

Wayfindr's open standard will let developers world over have access to tech that lets the blind navigate their environment through sound.

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May 13 2016, 9:00am

Wayfindr is a digital system that lets blind people navigate London's tube by sound. Image: Sophie Mutevelian

Since 2014, Wayfindr—a digital system that lets people navigate the London underground by sound—has helped the few visually impaired people trialling out the tech to travel without assistance.

Now Wayfindr makers want to roll out their development kit to the whole world. They've just published a working draft of the world's first standard for audio wayfinding using wireless tech. In a nutshell, they want their tech to be available to all, but want to ensure that certain design principles are adhered to.

"We're opening out a demo app and alongside that a set of best of practices and guidelines that help to standardise the design principles around what blind people might be expecting in terms of their existing mobility training," Katherine Payne, the communications and marketing lead from Wayfindr, told me.

Wayfindr is the result of a collaboration between a youth forum at the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) and Ustwo. The tech consists of Bluetooth beacons dotted around various areas of the tube that sync up to a smartphone app. Users wear bone conduction headphones that conduct sound through the skull, and when they pass the beacons they receive specific audio instructions telling them where to go when. Since 2014, the digital navigation system has been trialled in Pimlico and Euston tube stations in London as well as in Sydney, Australia.

Ruksana tries out the audio wayfinding system at Pimlico station in London. Image: Sophie Mutevelian

Kevin Dunning, the London Underground's director of asset and operational support, said there were around 70 to 80 Bluetooth beacons in both Euston and Pimlico stations. Dunning said that while station staff were happy to help the visually impaired, this tech allowed people to act on their own. He envisioned how Wayfindr could be rolled out across the whole of London's underground network in the future.

"The main challenge is making sure it's sustainable for the future. As soon as you fit them into stations, the beacons are in an operational environment, so you've got to make sure that the batteries aren't flat and everything works properly," Dunning told me. "You've got to make sure people have access to the tech."

"Wayfindr gives you specific instructions to guide you, it's another step towards independence and inclusion."

For Ruksana Khanum, a visually impaired postgrad who is currently training to be a solicitor, the Wayfindr tech provides her with a freedom of movement that the fully sighted take for granted.

"If you're visually impaired, even when you want to go somewhere five minutes away, if you don't know where it is, you might have to take a cab," Khanum, also a member of the the RSLB youth forum, told me. "Wayfindr gives you specific instructions to guide you, it's another step towards independence and inclusion."

While Wayfindr is limited to underground spaces, the makers want to start developing it other indoor environments such as shopping centres and hospitals, and grow the community of people who are interested in implementing it within their own countries.

"We wanted [Wayfindr] to be accessible to as many people as possible, and for them to benefit from it," said Khanum, stressing how the tech took into account people across the visually-impaired spectrum.

"If in a couple of years, we can get it on street level, it would mean visually impaired people would have a step towards independence," she added.