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New York pilots smartphone app to assist blind and low-vision bus riders

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Transit Innovation Partnership have launched the programme that helps riders use their smartphones to find bus stops and learn of arrival times. 

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The NaviLens smartphone app uses an algorithm to translate visual signage into audio
The NaviLens smartphone app uses an algorithm to translate visual signage into audio

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and the Transit Innovation Partnership are testing an audio wayfinding technology that allows blind and low-vision bus riders to locate bus stops and track bus arrivals.

 

The NaviLens app, which can be downloaded on Android or iOS devices, uses an algorithm to translate visual signage into audio and allows customers to determine the accurate location and distance to the nearest bus stop. They can also learn when the next bus will arrive, know how crowded the bus is (if the necessary sensor technology is onboard), and be directed onto the bus when it pulls up to the stop.

 

With assistance from the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), signs along the M23 SBS bus route display decals that allow for use of a new app.

 

Audio directional cues

 

Colourful, QR-style unique seven-inch-tall codes are installed on bus stop poles that the app can detect from up to 40 feet away and at an angle of up to 160 degrees. According to NaviLens, the code does not have to be in focus for app detection and will direct the user by providing audio directional cues including distance and angle from code such as “25 feet away, straight”, ’right’, and so on. This bids to solve the “last-few-yards wayfinding problem” for the blind in which GPS technology does not guide to a destination’s exact location.

 

“Accessibility is a key priority for the bus system and MTA family. And this app pilot is another way to help bus riders who rely on audio cues and signals to guide them,” said Craig Cipriano, president of MTA Bus and SVP of the NYCT Department of Buses. “I want to thank our partners at Transit Tech Lab, NaviLens and DOT for realising that accessibility for bus riders begins at the bus stop.”

 

The M23 SBS bus route is a popular route, carrying almost 14,500 weekday riders, pre-pandemic. It is the eighth busiest bus route in Manhattan with stops near the Selis Manor Residence for the Blind, Visions Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library.

“Accessibility is a key priority for the bus system and MTA family. And this app pilot is another way to help bus riders who rely on audio cues and signals to guide them”

NaviLens was one of nine start-up companies selected as part of the 2020 Transit Tech Lab, which called for private sector innovations to improve public transit accessibility. The lab is a programme of the Transit Innovation Partnership, a public-private initiative created by the MTA and Partnership for New York City in response to governor Andrew Cuomo’s call for private sector innovation to improve and modernise public transit.

 

“The NaviLens pilot has the potential to make public transit more accessible and responsive to the needs of all customers,” said Rachel Haot, executive director of the Transit Innovation Partnership. “We are thrilled to work with NaviLens and our partners at the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation to create a more connected, inclusive transit network.”

 

Inadequate map data

 

NaviLens, based in Spain, is a technology company working to solve the “last-few-yards wayfinding problem”. Despite GPS navigation becoming a major wayfinding tool for people who are blind or low vision, GPS inaccuracy and inadequate map data brings users within the vicinity of their destination, but not to the exact location, reports NaviLens. Its codes aim to help solve that problem by providing the remaining important information: the exact location of a destination and the pertinent visual signage.

 

NaviLens has been implemented in Spain’s Barcelona, Madrid, and Murcia transit systems, as well as museums, schools, and offices in Europe and the US.

 

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