You are here! How new design thinking and technology can help all of us navigate better

Posted on: 10/05/2018

Highlights of an event showing how location technology and ‘inclusive design culture’ can assist people with disabilities.

By Alan Cowie

Technologists, transport systems providers and end-users met [on Thursday 3rd May 2018] to discuss challenges, solutions and opportunities in wayfinding, navigation and mobility for people with disabilities.

Over 50 delegates gathered at the the new Digital Greenwich building, which overlooks the bustling O2 Arena below and boasts spectacular views of Canary Wharf. The event was organised by Cambridge Wireless, a leading international community for companies involved in the research, development and application of wireless and mobile, internet, semiconductor and software technologies.

Dr John Gill, a researcher who has written over 300 publications was first to speak. He highlighted some of the reasons that disabled people may be put off travelling around a city or town. He said: “There’s the complexity of ticketing systems; the machine doesn’t always give you the cheapest ticket. You need to understand the network and the combination of different transport modes. It sounds simple but not to someone who doesn’t use the system. Seating without armrests [which aid standing and sitting], availability of toilets and the perceptionof safety are all reasons why some disabled people simply avoid travelling. These reasons sound trivial but they make a big difference”.

Dr Gill talked about an ‘inclusive design culture’ where facilities and services for the disabled are not added on at the final stage “like a coat of paint” but rather considered right from the beginning of the design process. He said “don’t design for disabled people, design for all people”. He used the example of how systems for blind customers may equally be used by a fire service navigating through thick smoke. He said: “Look at the total population of users, not just disabled people.”


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Another important attribute is having consistency of the user interface. He compared the number keypad on a calculator versus the one on a telephone device. “Number five is always in the middle so if you put a raised dot on that button, how will a blind person know which system is being used?”

Now you may not know who Colette Jeffrey is, but chances are you’ve seen the impact of some of her work. She’s a signage expert, with Heathrow Airport and Wembley Arena amongst her list of clients. One of her projects is Legible London – these are the pillars you see on London’s streets (and other cities), which feature maps, signage and information to help you find your way. It’s easy to underestimate the enormous level of research and design that goes into these seemingly simple signs but Colette has spent much of her career understanding the user needs and how to best display information to help us interact with our environment. “Not everyone wants to go straight from A to B. You’ve got ‘striders’ and ‘strollers’ and it’s important to consider the needs of both. Strollers sometimes like to get lost as they take in their surroundings.”

Next up was Roger Wilson-Hinds, director of a company which is developing an IVR (independent voice recognition) voice-operated-smart-phone. Roger, now 77, was born blind but it clearly hasn’t stopped him living his life. He graduated in social science and later studied sense of smell and special needs in children at Warwick University. He said: “Navigation isn’t just about what’s under your feet. It’s about what you can smell and feel. There’s no use having a white cane or a guide dog if you haven’t got a cognitive memory. You have to have a sense of adventure and want to do it.”

The final speaker was John Paddington, who discussed future trends in transportation. “Private cars are not used 95% of the time.” A staggering figure presented by John, which really made you think about societal inefficiencies. If only we could learn to share? Enter autonomous vehicles and ‘mobility as a service’. This is a concept where users could pay a fixed fee to access a combination of transport modes over a set time period. It makes sense in theory but, as John concurred, requires integration across multiple systems.

One person, who didn’t speak but made a valuable contribution to the proceedings, was Hadeel Ayoub who was there to demonstrate her highly innovative product. Hadeel is the founder of BrightSign, which is a smart glove that translates sign language into text and speech. The glove is equipped with multiple sensors and machine learning software to support customisation. The glove enables individuals who use hand gestures as their primary means of communication to interact with the public without the need of a translator.

Feedback from the delegates was excellent and it really opened everyone’s eyes into both the needs of all people when navigating around, and the possibilities when it comes to technology solutions. It is obvious there is a long way to go, but it seems things are moving in the right direction.

Find out more about Cambridge Wireless

The event was supported by KTN’s Bob Cockshott, Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Lead and the event was sponsored at QualComm.

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