How Technology Can Help Vision-Impaired People Navigate Cities

Modern cities are complex, flexible and ever-changing environments which can present wayfinding and navigation challenges for people with disabilities, and in particular, people with vision impairment. Traditional wayfinding aids, such as signage, are often inadequate for people with limited vision. Additionally, shared space schemes and inconsistent use of kerb drops and tactile paving can contribute to a challenging navigation experience. As a result, nearly half of vision-impaired people in the United Kingdom don’t leave their homes as often as they’d like to.

However, everyday consumer technology now provides a range of assistive services for people with disabilities to make cities more accessible. A good example of this is GPS and services such as Google Maps, which can provide outdoor turn by turn navigation cues to vision-impaired users to help them navigate city streets and find their destinations. These assistive services will become more and more important with the number of vision-impaired people set to greatly increase between now and 2050 in line with the world’s ageing population, as age and vision impairment are highly correlated.

Until now, similar turn by turn navigation services have not been available indoors. GPS signals are often not strong enough to pinpoint a user’s indoor location and indoor digital maps are not yet widely available. A wave of technology options to provide location-based services, including indoor navigation are now available. The provision of indoor audio-based navigation in particular offers huge opportunities to increase the accessibility of our cities for vision-impaired people.

Audio-based navigation functions as a complementary mobility aid, working alongside a long cane or guide dog to give vision-impaired people the contextual information they need to navigate a complex indoor space such as a train station, airport, or shopping center. There are different approaches to providing audio navigation information to users, ranging from providing orientation information and positioning information to full turn by turn navigation. A key advantage of turn by turn audio navigation is that it does not require the user to form a mental spatial representation of their environment, something which can be difficult for some vision-impaired people.

Indoor navigation is a rapidly growing market, set to be worth up to $52 billion by 2022, by when Deloitte expects indoor navigation to be a mainstream service. This means that the next few years will see the rapid emergence of indoor navigation solutions. Within this first generation roll-out, there is a once in a generation opportunity to make indoor navigation systems accessible for vision-impaired people from the beginning, by ensuring they provide high quality audio navigation.

In order for vision-impaired people to use audio navigation at scale, it is important that navigation apps provide a consistent and high quality experience. Consistency is crucial to reducing the cognitive burden of using a mobility aid. This will allow vision-impaired people to understand and interpret the information given by the navigation app and use it along with their primary mobility aid to travel.

At Wayfindr, we are working hard to make this more inclusive and accessible future a reality. We have developed the world’s first internationally-recognized Open Standard for accessible audio navigation. This standard has been adopted by the International Telecommunication Union. The standard provides design guidelines for the user experience of an audio turn by turn navigation app, including what types of information should be provided to uses and when. We are working with a range of application providers who implement the standard into their products. Every month, in countries such as Turkey and Israel, thousands of people use turn by turn navigation in shopping centers and airports to find their way around independently. We hope that the next few years will see the rapid growth of accessible audio navigation all over the world, opening up new opportunities and increasing independence for vision-impaired people.

Cover photo © Sophie Mutevelian