London-based non-profit Wayfindr is on a mission to empower the 285m people living with sight loss worldwide through smart technology. Can audio wayfinding really go global? Ume Pandya and Florence Orban tell Shivvy Jervis what’s standing in the way of progress.
Can smart technology help visually impaired people to see? Not quite, yet, but it certainly has massive potential to help them to find their way around places.
That’s the belief that’s driving London-founded non-profit Wayfindr. It believes that technologies like smartphones and bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons can help to create an environment for independent navigation for blind people.
Wayfindr’s vision is to give the 285m people affected by visual impairment the chance to take new journeys, increase confidence and open up new opportunities.
In live trials, Wayfindr discovered that audio wayfinding instructions, alongside people’s primary mobility aids, were the best way to support independent navigation.
In 2015 Wayfindr got the chance to test audio wayfinding in public, when it secured a $1m grant from Google.org to trial audio descriptions on the London Underground.
In the trial, at London’s Euston station, participants were guided through the station by an audio app communicating with beacons around the station.
Google’s charitable arm supported Wayfindr as part of its global initiative to find innovative non-profits using technology to increase independence and opportunity for people with disabilities.
A key aim of the trial was to help Wayfindr to establish the world’s first standardised guidelines for smartphones to help steer visually impaired people through urban environments.
The Wayfindr Open Standard, which has grown from that point, is designed to help built environment owners, and indoor navigation services, make venues, products and services more accessible.
The standard includes advice and tips to the organisations that manage buildings and spaces on how to install beacon technologies. A standard approach is also good for the user, creating a consistency in approach.
Wayfindr started out life as a joint initiative between digital product studio Ustwo and the Royal Society for Blind Children charity. The original idea had been to create a standalone app, but trials found that more people were likely to use the technology if it was incorporated into existing navigation services like Google Maps or Citymapper.
“It all came from young people who are vision impaired,” RSBC and Wayfindr director Florence Orban recalls. “They decided they wanted to have an app that would help them locate the tube in London.”
Wayfindr chief executive Umesh Pandya says: “What we realised is that we could create something that could go way beyond apps, and that was an open standard that everyone could use, so we could democratise and share it with everyone. So it doesn’t matter if you are a large organisation or a small organisation, you can help anyone in the world.”
“Our dream is that they could be in their bedroom in London and get to an office in New York, just by using audio navigation,” says Pandya. “So they can come out of the house, use the transport network, go through an airport, get on a plane, and they can do that all through audio navigation. If the person speaks French, they can do it in French.”
Reaching those 285m is quite an ask though. What are the obstacles standing in the way of that becoming a reality?
“I think it’s both vision-impaired people around the world realising the potential for audio-based navigation through apps, and being and demanding to have that installed in all the venues that they are in,” says Orban. “We need governments – public transport bodies for instance – to say this is what we have to provide so our venues are accessible to vision-impaired people, but in the end to everyone.”
“The biggest challenge is trying to engage policymakers and infrastructure owners,” agrees Pandya. “We’re a startup and we use lean and agile methodologies. Governments and transport networks do not work in that way.
“We’re moving pretty quick. We have an international standard accreditation and hopefully this will help venue owners and transport networks and infrastructure owners to go, this is now an internationally recognised standard: let’s do something about it. So we hope this will bring that gap closer but we know that the pace at which large systems work. We’ve just got to get that alignment right.”
Shivvy Jervis has worked as head of digital content at Telefonica, as well as on her own video and presentation projects. Her focus is on the technologies that are helping to transform lives and the world around us.
Video produced by Joe Madden at Paradigm Creative