Thursday, 3 December 2015

Startup Wayfindr aims to help the visually impaired get around

Google's charitable arm, Google.org, has invested $1 million in the nonprofit startup Wayfindr, which aims to set the first standardized guidelines for using smartphones to steer visually impaired people through urban environments.

Wayfindr started life as an initiative between Ustwo, the studio behind the mobile game Monument Valley, and the youth forum of the Royal London Society for the Blind. The goal of the collaboration: make it easier for the visually impaired to navigate using beacon technology and audio descriptions to guide users between different points.

Originally Wayfindr was designed to be a standalone app, but trials and feedback showed the team at Ustwo it would be more valuable if it could be incorporated into the many location- and navigation-based services that already exist. Now its own company, Wayfindr is working toward creating an open standard for audio navigation for the visually impaired that will give location owners and makers of digital navigation the tools to build the technology directly into their own apps.

The benefit of created open, standardized guidelines is that the technology could be deployed in transportation systems or indoor venues, such as shopping centers, arenas or hospitals. The knowledge that a system or app is based upon the Wayfindr standard will mean that visually impaired people can trust it to reliably guide them independently through any given environment.

The standard will contain information on language like "what should be said in what context," says Wayfindr's Chief Executive Umesh Pandya, in order to make the experience consistent and reliable. It will also help venue owners understand what's the right technology for their environment -- so whether they're using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi for indoor navigation.

London Underground is currently in the midst of a full-scale trial of Wayfindr's technology in Euston Station, a major British transport hub. During the trial, participants are being guided through Euston by audio directions transmitted from a prototype smartphone app that communicates with beacons dotted around the station.

"Ultimately this innovative project is about giving our vision-impaired customers the flexibility to travel with the same independence and spontaneity as everyone else," said David Waboso, London Underground's capital programs director. The trial "is really putting the system through its paces," he added.

It builds a smaller trial conducted at Pimlico Station, a minor station on the Underground network, that was conducted earlier this year. Pandya says that this trial validate the idea that the technology was necessary and also helped them better understand users' needs.

Wayfindr hopes to use its findings from the Euston trial to publish the first Wayfindr Standard in early 2016. It will use the grant from the Google Impact Challenge to expand the trial into new environments and accelerate Wayfindr's work.

Although for now the aim of the technology is to empower the visually impaired, Pandya believes it could eventually also benefit " the many others who might be trying to find their way around a complex indoor environment."

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