Can iBeacons Be Used To Help The Visually Impaired Navigate Public Transport?

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London-based digital design studio ustwo is working on a project with the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) to determine whether iBeacons/Bluetooth Low Energy beacon technology can be used to help visually impaired individuals navigate public transport by mapping their location dynamically and providing audio cues to direct them through stations and onto trains via an app.

Quick recap for those not up to speed on what beacon technology is: these are low powered indoor transmitters which notify mobile devices of the user’s proximity (via Bluetooth) to trigger proximity-related actions. Early interest in the tech has focused on retail scenarios such as shops and stadiums where a mobile user could, for instance, walk past a particular store and be sent a mobile ad or discount coupon in an effort to lure them inside. (iBeacon is Apple’s trademarked name for its own version of the tech but there are myriad other beacons out there.)

The ustwo-RLSB project is very much a work in progress at this point, with ustwo having built a prototype to prove the concept and brought the RLSB in to test it. The basic idea is that once the visually impaired user enters a public transport terminal where iBeacons (or similar BLE tech) have been deployed and opens the app (called wayfindr), their location can be determined via trilateration, based on pings from the nearest iBeacons, and mapped on their device — and then directions provided through bone conducting earphones.

ustwo has been using the Estimote iBeacons for this prototype.

“We’ve built a prototype, tested and evolved it with participants from the RLSB Youth Forum. We’re now in discussions with transport operators about running a trial, which would mean installing beacons around the transport network to validate whether this can work at scale,” says Umesh Pandya, associate UX director at ustwo.

“Currently there’s no time frame for deployment, but we hope to start the trial within the next few months. The ambition would be a seamless consistent experience across all modes of public transport but we’ll need to see if it will perform as intended within the right context before we get too excited.”

All of which is to say this is mostly an interesting idea at this point — but an exciting one, nonetheless, which hints at more socially valuable applications for Beacon tech than stalking shoppers to try to encourage them to spend more money.

It’s not clear how many iBeacons might be required — and at what density within transport locations — to make the navigation system work well in practice. That’s one of the factors that a future trial would look to figure out, according to Pandya, who notes that factors such as architecture and volume of people can have an effect on the pings.

“We’ll also consider looking at other beacons other than the Estimotes, to see which give us the best accuracy. We’ll plan to test an alternate version which we’re calling ‘augmented signage’ which will read any signs out aloud,” he adds.

ustwo has been funding the project itself so far and is now looking for addition funding or sponsorship.

“The challenge we set ourselves was to use ‘off the shelf’ products, compatible with the devices visually impaired people already use,” adds Pandya. “We wanted to avoid getting into expensive bespoke hardware development, or speculating too much about the potential future of untested technology. We wanted to see if we could solve this challenge right now.”

A recent ABI Research report predicts that in five years’ time the Bluetooth beacon device market will be some 60-million units strong. Let’s hope that by then some of those beacons will be doing some social good, not just firing more ads at mobile users.