How Beacon Technology Is Changing Lives

An open standard for audio-based navigation systems could make public transit far more appealing and accessible to vision-impaired commuters.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The RLSB says sight loss takes a toll on the U.K. economy, so anything that improves accessibility is like a tide raising all ships. In 2008, it estimates, the economic impact of sight loss was £6.5 billion ($9.5 billion), with costs related to health care and the amount of caregivers' time that is unpaid, but also to the reduced employment rates that vision-impaired citizens receive. While neither the mobile application that ustwo has developed, nor the standardization effort that Wayfindr is providing, will close that opportunity/salary gap, I think both could help vision-impaired commuters feel more empowered.

Since they are unable to drive, vision-impaired people are heavily reliant on buses, subways and trains. But multiple studies have shown that they have trouble accessing and navigating such public-transit systems. According to a 2008 report commissioned by London's Royal National Institute for the Blind, 45 percent of vision-impaired people required advice on travel during the first year following diagnosis, but only 23 percent said they were offered mobility training to help them get around independently.

Wayfinding signs and maps do include some Braille-based information, but that is a far cry from the granular navigation that a smartphone app can provide. Public-transit agencies offer assistance to vision-impaired users, but that generally requires a commuter to make arrangements to meet an agency staffer to provide physical guidance. And then there are the unique configurations and variations in the layouts of the stations, which were not necessarily designed to provide sonic cues to commuters.

Here's what Nik Pollinger, a media relations rep who works for Wayfindr, told me via e-mail:

"Some forms of public transport are practically speaking harder to access, in particular the subway because of obstacles such as escalators, crowds and reading timetable information. This may disincline a vision-impaired person from trying because of the effort and time it would take. On the psychological front, being sighted I was myself surprised to learn that it is inappropriate to ask someone using a cane if they require assistance (because they have always been polite in declining). They will get numerous such offers on any trip and really what they tend to want is to feel autonomous and independent—only asking for help if they need it."

If the Wayfindr standard is widely deployed and used for navigation apps in transit agencies around the world, that doesn't just mean it will be easier for people like Satizabal to get to work or to meet friends for a post-work beer in London—it will make using public transit while visiting other cities easier, too. That means the technology will have add-on benefits for transit-accessible businesses as well.

It will take time and investment for businesses, as well as transit and service providers, to build out beacon infrastructures and create applications, Satizabal reminded me. But he added: "Eventually, this investment would be good for everybody."

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of IoT Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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