Since its launch in 2016, Perkins School for the Blind’s mobile app, BlindWays, has helped hundreds of visually impaired travelers locate more than 5,000 Boston-area bus stops with ease. This week, Perkins and the MBTA announced BlindWays 2.0, an updated version of the app that utilizes Bluetooth beacons to provide users with enhanced vibrating navigational clues at select stops.
Below, Executive Director of Perkins Solutions Luiza Aguiar tells us what it all means:
What are these beacons, and what do they do?
Beacons are small transmitters – they’re only a few inches wide – that use wireless technology to exchange data over short distances. In our case, these beacons are mounted on bus stop signs and get triggered when someone using BlindWays is nearby. As the user approaches the sign, their phone will start to vibrate with increased frequency – all based on signals being sent to their phone by the beacons.
How will beacons improve the BlindWays experience?
We wanted to increase the rider’s confidence that they’ve successfully navigated to their bus stop – not 20 or 30 feet away from it, but actually standing next to it. BlindWays already provides crowdsourced clues that give users a mental map of physical landmarks around the bus stop – those aren’t going away! – but we think the addition of vibrations will give users that extra confirmation that they’re in the right place.
Are there beacons at every stop?
Not yet. The MBTA wants to pilot this technology to make sure what sounds like a good idea is a good idea. Right now the beacons are in place on stops along the 70 and 71 bus routes, and we’ve included a short survey embedded in the app so users who try it can give us feedback. This will help us determine the value of the beacon structure and help the MBTA decide if they want to go beyond the pilot phase.
What makes BlindWays different from other transportation apps?
Unlike most apps, BlindWays was developed from the ground up in collaboration with its users – people who are blind. The original idea actually came from a colleague who had difficulty locating bus stops using mainstream GPS apps – she would miss her bus constantly because she wasn’t standing in the right place. BlindWays is totally accessible for someone who is blind to use, and it solves a real barrier to transportation that many people with visual impairment face.