What would happen if a visually impaired person could walk alone on the street and in public places, his or her only guide being a mobile phone?
This question lies behind the original idea of wayfindr, an ambitious service created by a team of designers and researchers working in England, including one Greek national, George Maninis. The application that has received funding of $ 1 million from google.org is currently undergoing testing and will soon be released officially in the market.
"Our goal is to improve the self-esteem and the sense of security of visually impaired people by providing them with the opportunity to move safely. Studies show that such people often fall in a state of isolation and are unemployed. They face limitations in their socialization and would like to leave their homes more often. Much of the problem lies in the fact that they cannot move independently. They follow just a few well-explored routes. We want to help change this situation," George Maninis told the newspaper Ethnos.
The idea of wayfindr was launched nearly two years ago when the digital services design agency ustwo started cooperation with RLSB, a charity for visually impaired people. "Initially we thought to do something that goes without saying, namely to develop an application for mobile phones to guide blind people in indoor spaces, where the GPS does not work well. Even outdoor, the GPS accuracy is less than 10 metres. But exactly these last 10 metres are important. We started using the Bluetooth technology with an accuracy of 2-5 metres," explains George. The team consists of 4-5 people whose purpose is to research and develop innovative ideas and technologies.
After several experiments they decided not to create another application but to develop wayfindr so that it contributes to existing ones, such as Google Maps, in order to offer even more accurate navigation in indoor spaces. The studies started at underground and train stations. "So far we have completed three pilot experiments. We have recently completed the experiment in Euston, a London underground station, in cooperation with Transport for London. The next step is to finish the experimental stage and turn into reality the navigation in underground stations," says the Greek scientist, admitting that some parameters still must be specified.
The major motive for the people working on this platform is the reactions of visually impaired people who are involved in the experiments. "The look on their faces tells more than a thousand words. This is a big change in today's conditions. It still seems rather strange for some to move alone as they are accustomed to someone holding them by the hand", the researchers say.
What are the objectives of wayfindr? "In 2016 we want to see the application operating in the initial sites in London. In addition to underground stations, we want to explore the needs of navigation of visually impaired people in different locations, such as hospitals, museums, shopping centres. We want our efforts to be supported by programmers, organizations supporting blind people, innovation centres. We are building an open society around us," they explain. Does not that sound too ambitious? "Maybe, but one should always aim high", share the scientists.
George Maninis was born in the city of Volos and studied engineering design at the University of the Aegean on the island of Syros. Immediately after graduation, the young researcher set off to the UK and he has recently lived and worked in London. There he has obtained a master's degree in the field of human-computer interaction, a program that combines psychology, design and technology.
Although he is living in London, he closely follows the developments in his homeland and especially with regard to start-ups.
The young researcher does not exclude the probability of returning in Greece one day, if the situation there stabilizes.