RCA wayfinding

It is heartening for some of us to know that 20 August was a landmark day in the UK. The number of pensioners in the country overtook the number of teenagers in society for the first time, according to the Office for National Statistics.

But sight impairment is not limited to people in the pensionable age bracket – our sight starts to decline from the age of ten, so not even the young among us are immune.

It was against this backdrop that Royal College of Art research associate David Sweeney started work on a project a year ago to create a wayfinding system for people with low vision. His idea is to help people navigate buildings, museums, even streets more easily, and to include an element of discovery that a fully sighted person might experience.

Last week Sweeney presented his work-in-progress findings, dubbed The Sound of North: Wayfinding for Visually Impaired People, to an audience at the RCA comprising potential partners from technology and telecoms companies, as well as representatives from the museums community. All are sectors he perceives as possible takers to develop products based on the technologies and interfaces he has explored, manifested currently in a prototype Pathfinder product.

The project started with the Audi Design Foundation, which has co-funded Sweeney’s research with the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre. The ADF, which offers funding to selected inclusive projects, was approached by the Vassall Centre in Bristol to help create a wayfinding system for the building, an H-block-style old military office with no reception area that houses several charities for older or disabled people.

ADF manager Rebecca Edge says the charity decided to back the idea, but wanted to broaden out the implications of the research with HHC beyond a site-specific venture. At that point, Sweeney, a research associate on the RCA Industrial Design Engineering course, came on board.

Sweeney has identified four processes in wayfinding: orientation (finding where you are); deciding your route; monitoring the route to check you’ve not gone astray; and knowing when you’ve reached your destination.

‘Systems already in place tend to be visually oriented,’ he says, citing the London Tube map. ‘But we have other senses.’

He tested out three pilot ideas at the Vassall Centre, driven by existing technologies: a talking, tactile map of the location; a hand-held torch using radio frequency identification technology used by swipe cards that speaks the name of your environment when cued by sensor tags en route; and a smart camera that is pinned to the front of your body to see tags with quick-response codes along the route.

The problem with the tactile 3D map, Sweeney says, ‘is achieving a balance between detail and legibility’. It only helps to identify where you are and establish a route, he says, even though locations are ‘spoken’ as you touch the model.

The Pathfinder is an attempt to incorporate all wayfinding functions in one device. Being hand-held, it gives more personal control over your journey, says Sweeney, responding by sound, vibration or whatever alert you choose to pre-selected tags or prompts along your chosen route. You might find a WC, a gallery, a park or whatever that you hadn’t expected and break your journey as a sighted person might.

Among other features, Sweeney envisages a ‘Wikinav’, alerting you to interesting places or features or giving a bit of historical data. There could even be a tie-in with Google, he foresees.

What happens next depends to an extent on the people at last week’s presentation. There was considerable interest from technology buffs present, and the Victoria & Albert Museum is discussing a possible trial (See News, page 3).

But with the ADF and HHC both bent on research projects becoming reality for the good of society at large, it is likely that something interesting will come of the exercise. After all, it offers benefits to people with a range of sensory shortcomings, not just the visually impaired.

The sound of north wayfinding project
Three pilot ideas tested:


• A talking, tactile map of the location

• A hand-held torch, using radio frequency identification technology used by swipe cards, that speaks the name of your environment when cued by sensor tags en route

• A smart camera that is pinned to the front of your body to see tags with quick response codes along the route

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