Wayfindr Is on a Quest to Optimize Cities for the Visually Impaired
Last spring, the design studio Ustwo worked with the Royal London Society for Blind People to install Bluetooth low energy beacons in London’s Pimlico Station. They placed the small radios in strategic locations of the London Underground stop to triangulate the location of anyone using Wayfindr, a digital navigation system designed to guide the visually impaired using audio directions.
Over the course of a few months, Ustwo and the Society observed people using the system to navigate the station. They took notes and probed users for their reactions. At the time, it was nothing more than a modest experiment. Pimlico is among the Underground’s smaller stations, and the designers were curious to see how—and if—the system might work.
Wayfindr worked so well that Wayfindr became an independent company and recently received a $1 million grant from Google.org to expand its trial at Pimlico. The team will install the system at Euston Station, a buzzing transportation hub in central London, so it can continue gathering data to refine the technology. The ultimate goal is to create an open standard of guidelines (due in the spring) that developers can use to create audio navigation systems for the visually impaired.
These standards will aim to build consistency into a complicated environment, similar to what Massimo Vignelli’s Graphics Standards Manual did for New York’s subway system in 1970. The guidelines will focus on technical aspects (how many beacons per square foot, what’s the proper placement, that sort of thing), but also define the language and phrasing used in audio directions.
Through its work at Pimlico Station, Wayfindr already has a few rules. Things like: Use orthogonal phrasing that’s specific to the listener—e.g. “left” and “right”—instead words like “diagonal” that require an external point of reference. (Telling someone to walk diagonally, for example, requires more information than than saying “face 10 o’clock then walk forward,” or “turn left.”) Provide reassurances that people are heading in the correct direction instead of using definite distances like “walk 10 steps.” And use short phrases. “The actual interaction needs to be as concise as possible, otherwise we overload the user with a lot of information that’s hard to process,” says Umesh Pandya, CEO of Wayfindr. Ustwo found that omitting extra information, like the location of a ticket machine, makes audio instructions easier to process. Unlike navigating a shopping mall, which is an exploratory experience, public transportation is about getting from A to B as quickly as possible.
Still, there’s a lot that’s yet to be defined, which is why the company continues testing. For example, Pandya says they’re still determining how to best phrase a direction. Do you start a sentence with a verb or a point of reference? Are clock face coordinates the most effective way to orient someone in space? Audio directions are particularly complicated for the visually impaired if only because people with different levels of impairment require different degrees of assistance. Someone who is partially sighted probably will require different kinds or degrees of support than someone with total vision loss.
That inherent messiness is why Wayfindr decided to focus on building an open standard. “There’s no consistent source,” Pandya says. “We could go and create an app, but it wouldn’t achieve the ultimate goal.” Ultimately, Pandya figures Wayfindr would end up in an app war with a handful of other well-meaning developers who employ different ways of solving the same problem. “We just thought somebody needs to step up to bring this all together,” he says. “Twenty systems isn’t the way forward, it’s just not going to work.”
Creating a consistent vernacular for audio navigation ultimately extends Wayfindr’s impact far beyond the London Underground. If you look to the future, it’s not hard to see how it could become an integrated option in something like Google Maps or City Mapper. And as our world becomes more reliant on audio interfaces, it’s safe to assume that everyone—not just the visually impaired—will be glad that we’re all hearing the same thing.