Five Mobile Technologies Boosting Disabled Travellers' Commutes

By Spencer Hart on at

We can all be guilty of taking new technology for granted sometimes, but every breakthrough in consumer tech also opens up a world of potentially life-changing possibilities.

The most exciting mobile innovations aren't idle gaming time-wasters or camera filters, but empowering technologies enabling those with disabilities to live more independently. Here are five transport sidekicks aiming to genuinely change lives…

1.) Bluetooth Beacons on the Underground

Navigating the Underground's rat-run of Tube tunnels is difficult enough even without visual impairment. Addressing accessibility for the blind or partially sighted, though, is an app developed by Ustwo (those of Monument Valley fame) and the Royal London Society for Blind People's Youth Forum, which offers travellers audio-based directions and advice.

The application is called Wayfindr and it makes use of signals transmitted by Bluetooth beacons, which are then cross-referenced with Ustwo's indoor positioning instructions. Paired with a set of bone conduction earphones, the user is then fed navigation and direction instructions, without missing out on the vital ambient sounds at the station.

The system is currently undergoing a month-long trial at Pimlico Station. Wayfindr's ultimate goal is to have the system standardised and installed across the entire Transport for London network.

2.) Buzzing Wristbands for Bus Users

Seventeen-year-old student Daria Buszta has devised an inexpensive Bluetooth wristband that syncs up with a bus driver's ticket machine. The device allows a passenger to set a destination, so the band vibrates on the passenger's wrist when the bus approaches the designated stop, giving those that can't see their surroundings a physical prompt.

The design won a contest in which students were challenged to improve travel for disabled bus passengers. Daria received a cheque for £1,000, and will now get the opportunity to work with local businesses to have her design developed into a working prototype. This includes using funding worth £100,000 from the Transport Systems Catapult. [Image Credit: All Aboard Competition]

3.) Be My Eyes Smartphone App for the Blind

The Be My Eyes application connects the visually impaired with sighted helpers who use smartphones to keep in touch. Users can request help and as soon as the first sighted user accepts the request, a live audio-video connection will be set up and the temporary sidekick describes what they see.

This app isn't strictly aimed at transportation but the advantages are clear: being able to read a bus timetable, or departure board is made far easier with the app. The service currently has 170,000 registered volunteers, 17,000 blind users, and the company claims that 62,000 people have been helped so far. Interested in volunteering? The app is currently available to download for iOS.

4.) 3D Audio Navigation Technology from Microsoft

This project, known as Cities Unlocked, empowers blind and partially sighted people to explore their city and surroundings independently. The technology takes the form of a smart headset paired with a Windows Phone app and has been developed by Microsoft, the Guide Dogs UK charity and the UK government's Future Cities Catapult.

The headset is pair of bone-conducting AfterShokz headphones that have been adapted by Microsoft to include an accelerometer, gyroscope, compass and GPS chip. These sensors are used in conjunction with apps such as Bing Maps and Bluetooth beacons to help visually impaired people navigate cities.

Users will be able to select a destination on their smartphone, and the headset will emit a continuous pinging sound as they follow the correct route, and a different noise if they wander off-course. The device will also provide verbal directions at junctions, just like a sat-nav system.

The headset will also be able to provide additional details, such as information about nearby shops or attractions, which might have been missed due to impaired vision. This could even extend to providing historical information about points of interest, with all the information provided by Bing.

The Cities Unlocked project is still very much in the demonstration stage with no timescale as to when the technology will become publicly available.

5.) TalkRocket Go, a Location Based Text-to-Speech App

An application developed for people with speech difficulties, TalkRocket Go goes beyond the standard text-to-speech apps by including an intelligent location setting, which will suggest relevant vocabulary based on the user's whereabouts.

For example, "Can I buy a train ticket to London?", could appear when the user approaches a train station, or a regular food and drink order could appear as a user enters a restaurant.

The service also allows users to create their own dictionary of phrases on a web browser, which then syncs instantly with the smartphone app. The app is available now on iOS for the rather hefty price of £99 (although this is cheaper than dedicated communication aids).

Top Image Credit: Microsoft