Startup Wayfindr gets $1M from Google to help the visually impaired get around

The British nonprofit wants to set a global standard for using audio descriptions to guide people with little or no vision. A trial run is under way on the London Underground.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
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Navigating the complex London Underground network independently is a tricky task for the visually impaired.

Sophie Mutevelian/Wayfindr

Google's charitable arm, Google.org, has invested $1 million in the nonprofit startup Wayfindr, which aims to set the first standardized guidelines for using smartphones to steer visually impaired people through urban environments.

Wayfindr's technology is in the midst of a full-scale trial at the London Underground's Euston Station, a major British transportation hub. Participants are being guided through Euston by audio directions they hear through headphones, relayed through a prototype smartphone app that communicates with beacons dotted around the station.

That trial builds on a smaller test run earlier this year at the subway system's Pimlico Station.

"Ultimately this innovative project is about giving our vision-impaired customers the flexibility to travel with the same independence and spontaneity as everyone else," said David Waboso, London Underground's capital programs director.

Smartphones have proved to be popular tools for navigation in general. Paper maps now gather dust as people check Google Maps for driving directions or listen for prompts from the iPhone's Siri digital assistant to turn left two miles down the road. Meanwhile, retailers and advertisers have been experimenting with beacon technology that recognizes when you're in the mall or the grocery store and can alert you to promotions and personalized recommendations.

London-based Wayfindr started in 2014 as an initiative between Ustwo, the studio behind the mobile game Monument Valley, and the youth forum of the Royal London Society for the Blind. Originally the goal was to create a standalone app, but trials and feedback showed the team at Ustwo that it would be more valuable if the technology could be incorporated into the many location- and navigation-based services that already exist, such as Google Maps, Citymapper or site-specific apps for public transportation systems.

Now its own company, Wayfindr is working toward creating an open standard for audio navigation for the visually impaired that will give location owners and makers of digital navigation systems the tools and guidelines to build the technology directly into their own apps. The ambition with such a system is to provide a known, reliable technology that can easily be deployed in a wide variety of transportation systems or indoor venues such as shopping centers, arenas or hospitals.

To make the experience consistent and reliable, the standard will contain language-related information such as "what should be said in what context," said Wayfindr Chief Executive Umesh Pandya. It will also help venue owners understand whether Bluetooth or Wi-Fi would be the right wireless technology for their environment.

Wayfindr hopes to use its findings from the Euston trial to publish the first Wayfindr Standard in early 2016. It will use the grant from the Google Impact Challenge, announced Thursday, to expand the trial into new environments and accelerate Wayfindr's work.

"Moving freely is something that many of us take for granted," said Google's managing director in the UK, Eileen Naughton. "The hope here is that we can support mobility and movement through innovations in technology."

Though for now the aim of the technology is to empower the visually impaired, Pandya believes it could eventually also benefit "the many others who might be trying to find their way around a complex indoor environment."