Precedents

There are many precedents when it comes to wayfinding assistance for the vision impaired. A selected range is outlined below:

Walking Assistant Robotic System

This device is essentially a walking frame that contains sensors to provide feedback to a user. It was created by a team from the School of Instrument Science and Engineering, Southeast University, Nanjing 210096, China. It contains ultrasonic sensors for detecting obstacles up to 3m in front of the user, and a kinect camera to detect obstacles between 3 and 30m. The sensors give feedback to the user via a vibro-tactile belt, with vibrations indicating certain messages.

The sensors in this project are useful and practical, however the whole package is quite large and impractical. Disability design should be subtle, to ensure dignity for users. While this design improves obstacle detection, it may hinder the user’s mobility, as steps may not be able to be overcome while using this device.

Responsive Street Furniture

This design solution is quite an effective one from Ross Atkin Associates. Users register their individual needs on a website, such as needing extra lighting, extra seats or audio information. As they approach one of these installations, a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon detects their presence via a smart phone or smart tag. The installation responds by automatically providing the required needs on demand.

Responsive street furniture is an effective and simple way of making the environment respond to the needs of the user. It is passive in its interactions and subtle in its design. However, users must anticipate what needs they will require, meaning it may not be effective in every situation.

Wayfindr App

The Wayfindr app is a smartphone app that is currently in development. It makes use of BLE beacons, which send specific information about the environment to a user via the app. The information could be “there are stairs ahead” or “door handle is on the left”. This is a good solution that is accessible to many. However, BLE beacons can only send pre-set information, rather than real-time information.

Mediating Artefacts in Architecture: A non-Visual Exploration

This paper by Vermeersch, Nijs and Heylighen, investigates how tactile models can improve communication between architects and blind users. Typically, representations of buildings are done on paper or a screen. If a person with vision impairment can feel a floor plan, this study found that the levels of communication better than verbal communication alone.

Requirements

From this analysis of existing projects, I have made a list of requirements that a good design should have, to help people with vision impairments with way finding:

  • Responsive — Designs must respond to the needs of the user, preferably in a discrete or passive way
  • Adaptive — Designs must adapt to the needs of the user, rather than the user adapting to the design
  • Real-time — Information provided should be real time, meaning it is relevant and useful
  • Easy to use — Designs must be easy user friendly and require little to no training in order to use
  • Discrete — Designs should be subtle, yet effective. People should not be embarrassed to use the technology
  • Audio feedback — Designs should appeal to people’s sense of hearing in a clear way
  • Tactile — Designs should appeal to people’s sense of touch, in a clear way

References

Vermeersch, P.W., Nijs, G. and Heylighen, A., 2011, July. Mediating artifacts in architectural design: a non-visual exploration. In Conference Proceeding at CAAD Futures 2011: Designing Together (pp. 721–34).

Ni, D., Song, A., Tian, L., Xu, X. and Chen, D., 2015. A walking assistant robotic system for the visually impaired based on computer vision and tactile perception. International Journal of Social Robotics, 7(5), pp.617–628.