Cities are already large and complex places that are difficult to navigate. The big challenge for planners is to ensure they’re easier to spend time in – even as their populations expand.
Urban squeeze is evident in big cities, from high streets to underground train stations, but it’s worse for the visually impaired and blind. The Future Cities Catapult, part of the Catapult network funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, says that 180,000 people with sight loss rarely leave home because the thought leaves them feeling anxious and vulnerable.
“We want to live like normal people, we don’t always want to plan ahead to see if we can get community transport,” said Kirstie Grice, a visually impaired person. “We want to be able to just jump on a bus and go somewhere and have that freedom.”
Guide Dogs and Microsoft came together in 2011 to tackle this problem, later joined by the Future Cities Catapult. Together, in a project called Cities Unlocked, they’ve developed technology that augments a visually impaired person’s experience of the urban environment, using ‘3D-Soundscapes’ to increase their confidence and well-being.
The collaboration has brought together a wide range of partners. Nokia Lumia handsets interact with an Aftershokz audio headset – the University of Nottingham collected and processed data on the research trials. Engineering group Arup, academic researchers the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, mobile technology Mubaloo, and law firm Olsawang all contributed.
Together, they’ve developed a prototype headset that works with a technologically enabled route between Reading and London Paddington.
Beacons transmit data to the headset via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and GPS pinpoints the subjects’ location. In trials, users walked to a bus stop, caught a bus to Reading rail station, navigated the station, boarded a train to Paddington and found their way from the train to the ticket barrier.
Throughout the journey, the device receives audio data from the beacons and converts the signals into a series of patterned pips. These pips change frequency and intensity, to help the user adjust their direction. The beacons close to landmarks and places of interest also provide a commentary about that building or place.
Initial test results showed that the technology helps people with sight loss to feel more competent, autonomous and engaged with their environment, and significantly improved 10 of 17 measures of wellbeing including confidence, relaxation and reassurance. “By working with people who are living with sight loss and developing a deep understanding of the challenges they face, we’ve shown that the right technology can empower people,” said Jenny Cook, Head of Strategy and Research, Guide Dogs.
It’s not just the visually impaired that can benefit. More than ever, our cities can communicate with us about themselves, providing information and answering our questions via wireless data and the smartphones we carry. What if every signpost in the city sensed your presence? Walking towards one wouldn’t just allow you to read it more clearly, but also to interact with it.
“We all find navigation challenging. For tourists, delivery drivers or any other visitor, this research is very relevant – there could be any number of products and services here that can help people and have commercial value,” said Claire Mookerjee, Project Lead Urbanism at Future Cities Catapult. ‘‘This project demonstrates there’s a real use for beacons besides retail environments. Now, we need to find the next UK innovators who can follow up on Cities Unlocked and develop more applications.”
The Future Cities Catapult is working with public and private organisations, from Barclays and Tesco to Network Rail and First Great Western, to roll out larger networks of beacons that will provide information for everyone, via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.