This App Guides Blind Passengers Through London’s Subway

Wayfindr, an app that could empower visually impaired people to navigate cities, received a $1 million grant from Google.

Wayfindr uses audio instructions to help visually impaired users navigate the London Underground. (Credit: Ustwo)

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

For those who are visually impaired, even the best infrastructure and public transportation design doesn’t always equal accessibility. Trying a new route or navigating a new station can be stressful. Enter Wayfindr, an audio-based navigation system with specific, personalized instructions. Wayfindr, the first open standard for audio-based navigation, is the result of a collaboration between Ustwo, a global digital production studio, and the Royal London Society for Blind People’s (RLSB) Youth Forum. So far the system has been tried out in London’s Pimlico Station, but is currently being expanded throughout London’s Underground.

Here’s how it works: Small radios powered with Bluetooth beacon technology placed in strategic locations around the Underground triangulate the location of anyone using Wayfindr on their phone. The app then gives the user audio instructions in orthogonal phrasing that’s specific to the listener — such as telling the reader to turn left or right instead of walk diagonally. The app is focused on getting the user from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, and omits unnecessary info about the user’s surroundings.

The immediate goal, according to Ustwo’s website, is to “empower vision-impaired people to independently navigate London’s transport network, using the smartphone they have in their pocket.” But their vision extends far beyond the Underground. With the help of a $1 million grant from Google’s Global Impact Challenge: Disabilities, the Wayfindr team plans to eventually expand the system to hospitals, retail locations and more.

After successful initial trials, the creators shifted their focus to creating an open standard of guidelines, rather than just an app. Umesh Pandya, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit initiative, told Wired that he didn’t want to end up in an app war with other well-meaning developers trying to create navigation systems for the visually impaired. “We just thought somebody needs to step up to bring this all together,” Pandya said. “Twenty systems isn’t the way forward, it’s just not going to work.”

Ultimately, the system could become an integrated option in Google maps or Citymapper, or used in combination with something like Microsoft’s Cities Unlocked project. But we’re still a long way off from Wayfindr being a global standard, and for now, there’s still a lot to test: What is the most effective way to orient someone in space? Is it more effective to start a direction with a verb or a point of reference? How can the user experience stay consistent in very different locations?

The first open release of the Wayfindr rail stations system is set to launch in early 2016.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Kelsey E. Thomas is a writer and editor based in the most upper-left corner of the country. She writes about urban policy, equitable development and the outdoors (but also about nearly everything else) with a focus on solutions-oriented journalism. She is a former associate editor and current contributing editor at Next City.

Follow Kelsey

Tags: appssubwayspedestrian safetylondon

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 991 other sustainers such as:

  • Brian at $10/Month
  • Joseph at $5/Month
  • Anonymous in Newburyport, MA at $5/Month

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $60 or

    Just Action by Leah Rothstein and Richard Rothstein

  • Solutions of the year 2022

    Donate $20 or $5/Month

    2022-2023 Solutions of the Year magazine

  • Brave New Home

    Donate $40 or $10/Month

    Brave New Home by Diana Lind