Perkins School for the Blind is featured in a new exhibit at one of the nation’s preeminent design museums, occupying space previously adorned by displays of ancient textiles, 19th century model staircases and even a 400-year calendar.
No, the school didn’t design a 500-year calendar. But now through September, Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s design museum in New York City, is showcasing BlindWays, a mobile app developed by Perkins in 2016 to help people with visual impairments find bus stops in the Boston area.
The app is part of the museum’s much heralded “Access+Ability” exhibition, which features more than 70 groundbreaking high- and low-tech designs that help people with disabilities “lead independent lives.” It joins an impressive lineup of products including a BMW-designed racing wheelchair and a watch from Microsoft that steadies the hands of people with Parkinson’s disease.
BlindWays, which is free to use, provides crowdsourced micro-navigational clues to guide users with visual impairment to the exact location of bus stops. It was designed to help users traverse the last “30 feet of frustration” that standard GPS models often leave between them and their destinations.
“If you can’t find the stop then you can’t ride the bus,” said Luiza Aguiar, executive director of Perkins Solutions, which designed the app in collaboration with developer Raizlabs. “Having a way to get on mainstream transportation allows people with visual impairments to get where they want to go.”
To demonstrate to museum-goers how the app works, Cooper Hewitt created a mock environment using photo wallpaper depicting bus stops in New York City. Visitors can view the landscape, input clues describing the surroundings, and listen to feedback from the app’s navigation voiceover.
Museum curators said they chose to include BlindWays for both its practicality and potential, as well as its user-centered design.
“It struck us as being a very practical concern that could then be solved with a piece of technology that’s in everybody’s pocket,” said Rochelle Steiner, the exhibit’s co-curator. “It’s scalable as well. From one to the many.”
Since BlindWays launched in 2016, nearly 5,690 users have downloaded the app and navigational clues have been provided for more than 5,300, or approximately 67% of all bus stops along Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) routes.
The hope is to see the app eventually put to use in other cities. But its success also has Aguiar and her colleagues thinking about other innovations that could solve everyday challenges experienced by people with visual impairment.
“There are mainstream and emerging technologies that could be applied to create cost effective and helpful new solutions,” said Aguiar. “We want to be part of the ecosystem that catalyzes that type of thinking.”