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 $1 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
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.
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.”
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
“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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