Wayfinding solutions for people with low vision have yet to take full advantage of emerging technologies. David Sweeney, a research associate at London’s Royal College of Art, investigated tools that could improve wayfinding experiences for visually impaired users and provide them with the luxury of choice and exploration while navigating. But while Sweeney’s research focused on the visually impaired, it also has implications for helping all users navigate public spaces and manage complex information about the built environment.
Sweeney designed a range of devices that employ near-future technologies, and each was tested on real users, in real sites.
Most wayfinding solutions are geared to the needs of people with good eyesight. Where systems have been designed for low-vision users, they are generally limited to audio loops that can be expensive to install or Braille, which only a small percentage of people can read. However, the rapid development of wireless network technology and the high uptake of personal electronic devices mean that there is an opportunity for change.
This project set out to look at how emerging technologies could be harnessed to enable new forms of navigation that rely less on sight and more on the other senses. The aim was to realize the inclusive potential of “sensory substitution” through practical design. Three solutions were proposed, each aimed at streamlining information, conveying only the most important information at first, and allowing the user to access more detail only if they wish.
The first concept is a tactile map that combines a physical object with voice information to describe a building using hearing and touch. The next two devices use different technology to run a similar system. They build on the fact that most people have electronic devices such as camera-equipped cell phones or MP3 players and the majority of these will soon have easy access to the Internet. A building can therefore upload navigation information on the Internet that can be accessed in real time as a person walks through that space, giving “blow-by-blow” directions. People can post their own directions and comments about a particular space to aid other users, and the recipients can adjust the amount of information they wish to hear.
One system uses QR codes, a two-dimensional barcode that can be read by a cell phone camera and interpreted into directions. The other uses RFID technology to allow a seamless interchange between a building and a personal device.
Each device takes advantage of a particular information infrastructure, and this is the single most important aspect to emerge from Sweeney’s research. Essentially, wayfinding is just one type of information access. If we could facilitate an efficient retrieval of information, through sight, sound, or whatever, we will not only design improved wayfinding systems, but also improve any other system that involves information transfer, such as museums, learning environments, etc.
These devices are just one component in the chain. With careful consideration of how information is structured, where it is stored, and how it can be naturally and efficiently accessed, we can create intuitive information systems that can be adapted to each person’s preferences.
Rama Gheewaro (instructor)
David Sweeney, Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre