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This App Guides Blind Passengers Through London’s Subway

Wayfindr uses audio instructions to help visually impaired users navigate the London Underground. (Credit: Ustwo)

For those who are visually impaired, even the best infrastructure and public transportation design doesn’t always equal accessibility. Trying a new route or navigating a new station can be stressful. Enter Wayfindr, an audio-based navigation system with specific, personalized instructions. Wayfindr, the first open standard for audio-based navigation, is the result of a collaboration between Ustwo, a global digital production studio, and the Royal London Society for Blind People’s (RLSB) Youth Forum. So far the system has been tried out in London’s Pimlico Station, but is currently being expanded throughout London’s Underground.

Here’s how it works: Small radios powered with Bluetooth beacon technology placed in strategic locations around the Underground triangulate the location of anyone using Wayfindr on their phone. The app then gives the user audio instructions in orthogonal phrasing that’s specific to the listener — such as telling the reader to turn left or right instead of walk diagonally. The app is focused on getting the user from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, and omits unnecessary info about the user’s surroundings.

The immediate goal, according to Ustwo’s website, is to “empower vision-impaired people to independently navigate London’s transport network, using the smartphone they have in their pocket.” But their vision extends far beyond the Underground. With the help of a $1 million grant from Google’s Global Impact Challenge: Disabilities, the Wayfindr team plans to eventually expand the system to hospitals, retail locations and more.

After successful initial trials, the creators shifted their focus to creating an open standard of guidelines, rather than just an app. Umesh Pandya, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit initiative, told Wired that he didn’t want to end up in an app war with other well-meaning developers trying to create navigation systems for the visually impaired. “We just thought somebody needs to step up to bring this all together,” Pandya said. “Twenty systems isn’t the way forward, it’s just not going to work.”

Ultimately, the system could become an integrated option in Google maps or Citymapper, or used in combination with something like Microsoft’s Cities Unlocked project. But we’re still a long way off from Wayfindr being a global standard, and for now, there’s still a lot to test: What is the most effective way to orient someone in space? Is it more effective to start a direction with a verb or a point of reference? How can the user experience stay consistent in very different locations?

The first open release of the Wayfindr rail stations system is set to launch in early 2016.