In the framework of the work undertaken in the NODES Project, one good practice could be highlighted for its innovation, the use of Public-Private Partnership and the vision it gives to support Persons with Reduce Mobility in urban areas and nodes: the Cities Unlocked project developing a PRM guidance through audio description developed in Reading.
This project started in 2010, and its testing phase was initiated in November 2014. This is a navigation aid for visually impaired persons. At its most basic, it’s a piece of wearable headset tech that will help bring the world to life for blind people, while making it easier and safer to get around. It’s really considered as a step towards making smart city of the future, using technology that’s just as relevant and helpful for sighted people.
This guidance tool was jointly developed by Reading City Council, Guide Dogs and Microsoft. The system works with the combination of a headset with GPS mapping and extra beacons put on urban furniture. It’s a modified version of an AfterShokz bone-conducting set of headphones, all these connectivity options, plus Bluetooth beacon technology, and mapping software. Users can then navigate in Reading station and get information on their surroundings. The design experience provided information enable a person to better understand the layout of the space e.g. ticket barriers, lifts, escalators, facilities such as rest-rooms and waiting room, coffee-shops etc.with added Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS, plus an Arduino board making it all work together. The idea is, it picks up information from sensors in the environment to provide guidance and information to the wearer. This works using a combination of all these connectivity options, plus Bluetooth beacon technology, and mapping software. Users can then navigate in Reading station and get information on their surroundings. The design experience provided information enable a person to better understand the layout of the space e.g. ticket barriers, lifts, escalators, facilities such as rest-rooms and waiting room, coffee-shops etc.
This concrete signalisation heavily differs from currently available turn-by-turn guidance applications; instead, it takes the form of a smart headset paired with a mobile phone handset. Cloud based location and navigation data works with a network of information beacons placed in urban locations to create a personalised 3D-soundscape transmitted through the wearers jaw bone. This aids orientation, navigation and provides enhanced contextual information such as shops, points of interest, and additional journey details. Furthermore a key design aspect is the fact that an impaired person wearing such headset would no longer need to take out his/her phone, which is certainly a barrier considering the additional use of a stick or the leash of guide dog.
The Cities Unlocked programme sought to bring people with sight loss together with researchers, designers and technology providers to identify current urban challenges and develop new approaches to give people a greater level of freedom. Through experience and research of niche, complex challenges facing those living with sight loss, the programme has developed both an informed design process and a platform that has huge potential for society at large, not just those living with sight loss.
The technology demonstrator has initially been tested on a sample journey from Reading to London encompassing walking routes, bus travel, shopping, and train travel. The first pilot saw the trial tested with eight people living with sight loss as well as those who are sighted, and our research found that 10 of 17 measures of wellbeing were significantly increased when using the technology, with 62% of participants reporting an increased feeling of safety, confidence and resilience, allowing them to relax into the journey. In addition, the research from the partnership has for the first time quantified the different emotional experiences of walking in the city between sighted and a range of people with sight loss, identifying crossings and pedestrianised shopping areas as especially stressful. The research has crucially identified a set of learnings for professionals who contribute to making cities more accessible for everyone such as urban planners and designers.
Considering the future of the project, it would need infrastructure investments in the form of beacons which many organisations have now started to do as well as a need for the GPS to be more precise. It would also need to work in several languages. In that perspective, the tool scored under the NODES Project 9/21. Should it work for all users, it could then become a 21/21 cutting edge technology innovation for urban nodes.