This App Helps Blind People Navigate London's Tube by Sound

One user said it made her feel "like a normal citizen."

Mar 6 2015, 2:40pm

​Joy Addo, a member of the RLSB Youth Forum who took part in the trial. Image: Wayfindr

One of London's tube stations just got a whole lot more accessible for blind and vision impaired travellers, thanks to a new Bluetooth setup.

"When we go to stations, we have to wait around for assistance if there's no assistant—waiting a considerable amount of time," Courtney Nugent, who is visually impaired and helped work on the project, told me. "We should be treated just the same as everybody else is treated."

Called Wayfindr, the new system is currently being trialled at Pimlico station. It's the result of a collaboration between a youth f​orum at the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) and digital studio Ustwo, better known for games like Monument Valley.

The Bluetooth beacons used by Wayfindr, made by Estimote. Image: Wayfindr

The tech is pretty simple; it makes you wonder why something like this doesn't exist everywhere already. It consists of low-energy Bluetooth beacons that work with a smartphone app to give users audio directions when they pass them, and guide them to the platform. Users can use bone conduction headphones, which work by conducting sounds through the skull so you don't have to block your ears with them and obstruct your normal hearing.

As you approach one beacon, you might get an instruction like "Follow the ramp down to the ticket hall," or "You are approaching the end of the escalator."

"It gives you enough information to be able to get down to the platform," said Nugent. Now 25, she lost her sight when she was three, and said she takes the tube alone all the time. When she trialled the new app, she said it was "amazing" and made her feel "like a normal citizen."

The app isn't meant to take over from traditional aids like canes and guide dogs, but to offer help with navigation. RLSB's chief executive Tom Pey compared it to the signage you'd expect to see around tube stations. "If you're sighted, you can navigate your way around unfamiliar areas by reading signs," he said. "If you can't see the signs then you've got a problem."

Ustwo initially  tested the te​ch above ground, before getting access to Pimlico through Transport for London. Umesh Pandya, associate UX director, said that going underground presented some potential challenges. "The tunnels have got a curvature to them, so would the signal bounce around and get distorted?" he said. The footfall in tube stations was also a concern, as signals don't travel so well through human bodies.

But the trial was successful, and both Ustwo and the RLSB hope to expand the system further. Pandya said they purposefully used only readily available tech—most users have some kind of smartphone and headphones—to keep costs low, as the bespoke tech out there for the vision impaired can be pricey.

The ultimate aim is to create a standardized system of audio signage across all of London's transport networks, such as buses and roads, so users have an easier experience and don't have to flick between apps.

Nugent said she'd like to see it in the station she uses more often—Pimlico, after all, is not one of London's busiest destinations. Pey wants to see it expand even further, and envisions Bluetooth being used "any place indoors where GPS doesn't penetrate."

And it's not necessarily just for blind people; it could also prove useful for tourists or anyone else who might have trouble navigating.

But the biggest takeaway, in Pey's view, is the talent of the young people who came up with the idea to tackle what they identified as a major challenge, and he'd like to see more opportunities for them. "One of the next challenges we have set them is to make this the most employment-friendly city in the world for blind people," he said. "So watch this space."