How We’re Enabling Independent Travel For The World’s 285 Million Blind People

Travelling independently, especially on public transport and through indoor spaces can be a difficult and sometimes impossible experience for vision impaired people. In the UK, nearly half of blind and vision impaired (VI) people would like to leave their homes more.

This lack of mobility plays a huge part in the challenges VI people face: they are much more likely than average to be unemployed, live in poverty (two-thirds of them live at or below the poverty line), and suffer from social isolation.

Globally, there are 285 million blind or VI people. The number of VI people is set to increase significantly as the world’s population ages, as vision impairment primarily affects older people. Some studies suggest the number of blind people could treble between now and 2050.

At the same, time technological advances, including the widespread use of smartphones, have great potential to empower VI people to navigate independently. Wayfindr, a partnership between the Royal Society for Blind Children and Ustwo, was set up in 2015 to address this mobility challenge using everyday technology. A solution quickly emerged: audio navigation, also known as audio wayfinding.

In the last few years, people have become used to using GPS devices to find their way around towns and cities. However, GPS signals aren’t always strong enough to work reliably indoors and don’t take into account building features, such as stairs or railings. Recent technological advances have created new ways to map and locate people inside buildings. This emerging indoor positioning and indoor navigation market is growing rapidly and is expected to be worth almost $18 billion by 2021.

Wayfindr initially developed a prototype solution based on a mobile application and Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons. Signals between the BLE beacons and a user’s mobile phone triggered audio instructions to guide the users. This was tested successfully at London’s Pimlico Underground Station. This showed that this type of solution could work and was seen as usable by VI people.

However, it was at this stage that Wayfindr realised that the greatest possible positive impact of this technology would not be realised by developing a single stand-alone app for the London Underground. The key to empowering VI people to navigate independently was to make sure that any indoor navigation app delivers a consistent user experience. This consistency will give users the confidence to use indoor navigation, even in unfamiliar environments.

As indoor navigation is an emerging market, there is currently the opportunity to ensure that accessibility is built in from the beginning. This is what led Wayfindr to create an Open Standard for Accessible Audio Wayfinding. This Open Standard has since been approved by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, meaning it is recognised in 193 countries around the world. The standard is a set of free-to-use guidelines which give app developers and building owners all the information they need to develop an audio wayfinding solution which can be used by VI people. Audio wayfinding can also be used by people with cognitive impairments, such as dementia, or print disabilities which leave them unable to read signs.

Adoption of the open standard will give VI people a wide choice of accessible venues and navigation apps, giving them the freedom to travel independently and play a full part in the economy and society. If a range of fragmented solutions emerge, with different ways of giving information and guidance, adoption in the VI community will be much lower and this opportunity to empower VI people to navigate independently will be lost.

Wayfindr is currently working with a range of organisations across the UK, Europe, and the United States to pilot and deploy accessible audio wayfinding solutions, including working towards a large-scale six-month trial at selected London Underground Stations. More and more accessible spaces will help make the dream of independent navigation for the VI community a reality.