Capital Metro recently ended a pilot program that would improve the way blind people use the bus system. It involves an app that uses voiceover technology to give people real-time transportation information while guiding them step-by-step to the nearest bus stop.
The new tool is a collaboration between Cap Metro and the tech companies Connecthings and MIPsoft. The pilot covered 15 bus stops downtown and involved about 100 users. Austin is one of a handful of U.S. cities testing the technology.
Paris-based Connecthings specializes in beacons, small internet-connected devices that use Bluetooth technology to locate a person. They can be placed almost anywhere, such as on the pole at a bus stop. The beacon can transmit information to people around it; in this case, that's transportation information.
“You can imagine [it’s] very, very useful to know that you are precisely at the bus stop,” Connecthings CEO Laetitia Gazel Anthoine says. “It's very useful for [riders] to have real-time information about what’s happening around them at this specific place.”
Connecthings gets all the bus information from Cap Metro and then communicates it with the smartphone app Blindsquare, one of the first GPS mapping systems for people who are blind. The app gives the user all the same points of interest but not visually – it reads them aloud.
“Where you and I go walking down the street, we turn our eyes [and] turn our head from side to side, making mental notes,” says Rob Nevin, one of two people who make up MIPsoft, the Helsinki-based company that created the app. “A blind person lacks that acuity, but we’ve replaced that absence of information with information.”
Blindsquare not only guides a person from Point A to Point B, but it also gives the person the ability to be a little adventurous. Using a voice command, users could ask – “Where’s the nearest coffee shop?” – and the app would guide them audibly.
GPS mapping usually puts a person a few feet from their destination, though, which is not ideal when the person is blind and trying to catch a bus.
Nevin says friends have said if "they don’t know where the pole is or where the sign is that the bus driver is watching for [and they're not right there], the bus driver will often just keep driving.”
That’s what makes the Cap Metro pilot unique. The beacons add an additional layer that helps the user know exactly where the bus stop is.
Connecthings puts the beacons on a pole at the stop and Blindsquare guides the user to that pole. It’s up to Capital Metro to share the most up-to-date bus information with both companies.
Martin Kareithi, the program manager for accessible services at Cap Metro, is himself blind.
“The term I prefer to use is blind or low vision,” he says. “I try to shy away from the term 'visually impaired' just because of the ‘impaired’ component sort of has a negative connotation and there’s not necessarily anything negative about the fact that you can’t see, you just can’t see.”
At Republic Square Park, Kareithi tells the app to find the nearest bus station and it correctly locates the Republic Square Station a few hundred feet away. Once he accepts the destination, it starts giving him step-by-step directions.
The directions are more frequent and incredibly more detailed than the average GPS mapping system. It uses the face of a clock to help the user navigate the exact direction. For example, the app tells Kareithi that his stop is “80 meters at 11 o’clock.”
Blindsquare led him to the exact pole at the bus stop that held the Connecthings beacon. Once there, Kareithi asked for the bus schedule and the app told him the next three arrival times.
Kareithi and his team at Cap Metro are working with their partners to sift through all the user feedback from the pilot program. It’s not yet certain when or how they’ll move forward, but Kareithi says to stay tuned.
“What we want to do is really give folks the opportunity to be as independent as they’d like to be, given what their God-given abilities are, and take advantage of all the good things that Austin has to offer,” he says. “As technology continues to evolve, it’s just game-changing.”