A Google-back project to help blind people navigate with smartphones got a boost from the UN

Wayfindr trial in LU in 2015 1 ®Sophie Mutevelian ruksanaWayfindr / ® Sophie MutevelianRuksana, an RLSB Youth Forum member who has tested Wayfindr.

LONDON — In 2014, members of a youth forum at the Royal London Society for Blind People wrote a manifesto on the change they wanted in the world to help young blind people like themselves.

Subjects ranged from dating to employment — as well as getting around without having to rely on other people.

Their attitude was, Wayfindr director Florence Orban said, “we just want an app to navigate a tube in London, we don’t want someone who’s picking us up at the ticket barriers, taking us down … we want to be like everyone else.”

With the help of London development studio Ustwo and $US1 million funding from Google’s philanthropic arm Google.org, that idea became a reality — and it has now received a major boost from a United Nations-affiliated body as it conducts trials around the world.

It’s not an app — it’s bigger than that

The project is called Wayfindr, and provides audio instructions to help blind people navigate. But it doesn’t have an app. Instead, it has produced an “open standard” — a set of guidelines any developer can use to build accessibility tools that work consistently. (The first version of it was released in 2016.)

Wayfindr’s vision is a city covered in beacons — low-power gadgets that emit a Bluetooth signal. These signals then communicate with specialised apps used by people with impaired vision, which tell them where they are and how to get around.

Upon entering a train station the app might give them directions to various platforms, for example, or help them find the toilet in a restaurant.

The aim is to give blind people far more independence — allowing them to navigate cities without being reliant on human guides.

After an initial trial at Pimlico underground station in London, “we realised developing an app wasn’t going to be the answer,” Orban said in an interview with Business Insider. “They would be incredibly localised, and if we wanted to transform the world we would need to have an international standard.”

Wayfindr trial in LU in 2015 3 ®Sophie MutevelianWayfindr / ® Sophie MutevelianA RLSB tester trials Wayfindr on the London Underground.

Trials are ongoing and the UN is on board

The Open Standard has now been approved by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an UN-affiliated industry body, as an official ITU standard — significantly boosting its visibility.

Florence Orban WayfindrWayfindrWayfindr’s Florence Orban.

“We worked with them so that Wayfindr would become an ITU standard, because immediately it would be a standard recognised by 193 member states and 800 tech companies, and by definition all the major tech companies in the world, Google, Microsoft, and so on”, the director said.

And the initiative is continuing to conduct trials in London, Sydney, and elsewhere in the world. There’s currently one ongoing in Oslo; another one for a Barcelona shopping centre is scheduled for November. It is also in talks with London transport regulator TfL (Transport for London) about a trial in six stations that will lead to a permanent installation of the tech, Orban said.

“The only reason it would be a trial is that it would not be open to everyone … at the end of the trial it will be open to everyone. I can’t tell you where but we are in final negotiations to do a trial in the United States in transport that will lead to permanent installation … I think within 12 months.”

For Orban, the work is about making a difference to people’s lives. “This has the power to transform the lives of millions of people, and I can see that with the young people we’ve done tests with in London, live tests or in labs. And it means they have the confidence, the opportunity, the ability to lead their lives exactly as they want, and that’s what my work is about — making that change — to change the world for young blind people.”

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