Navigating a T station can be challenging enough — even without a visual impairment.
A new technology designed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst might make subway orienteering easier for blind people — or more likely, for people who lack that innate Bostonian I-know-exactly-where-I’m-going sixth sense — by offering step-by-step instructions on how to get to their destination inside a T station.
The electronic navigation system, called PERCEPT, uses a smartphone application to help people detect landmarks inside a station and provides verbal directions for moving from one spot to another.
The technology is still a long way off from becoming ready for the public — it will debut in Arlington Station in 2016 — but it offers a glimpse at a means of helping people with visual disabilities that could spread systemwide.
Aura Ganz, a professor in the university’s electrical and computer engineering department, has been working on this system since 2004, trying to develop a way that visually impaired people could walk into a strange building and find their way around without another person guiding them. She explained that GPS, while helpful for long-range navigation, is rarely exacting enough to orient people in a small space.
Instead, she realized electronic tags could be installed at spots throughout a building, using technology that’s a close cousin to the radio-frequency identification chips that MBTA fare gates use to read a Charlie Card. Tap the phone to these signs, and the phone will offer suggestions to the next spot en route to the final destination. The tags are placed behind existing signs or on fixed structures, and do not need to be plugged into a power source.
“It’s not one long instruction,” Ganz said. “It’s an instruction that leads you from one landmark to another.”
In tests so far, 19 out of 20 people who tried the smartphone app were able to reach their final destination.
“The advantage of the system is that it will re-route you from anywhere to your destination,” Ganz said. “It doesn’t assume that you will always follow the correct path.”
Now, the network of electronic tags and a corresponding smartphone app is coming to Arlington Station, funded by a two-year $238,321 grant awarded by the T, using money from the Federal Transit Administration,
Larry Haile, system-wide accessibility coordinator for the MBTA, said he first learned about PERCEPT at a conference on disabled issues in 2011. His immediate reaction: That’s what we need on the T.
“This would take a bit of the guesswork out of navigating around a station environment,” said Haile, who knows from experience as he is visually impaired.
“The beautiful thing is that it doesn’t just have to be for people with visual impairments,” he continued. “Tourists would be able to get information about how to get to where they need to go.”
A video of the technology in action demonstrates how the app could be used in an office building. It’s not hard to see how they could be modified for a train station.
“This building is composed of one long hallway with exits at either end,” the smartphone declares audibly, in a robotic voice, after it is tapped against one of the tags. “Your first destination is Mail Room. Proceed until the end of Floor Rug, approximately 10 feet, then turn right until reaching the wall. Swipe next for further instructions.”
Haile said that other more modern transit systems tend to have a more standardized design throughout their stations — usually, an escalator that carries passengers down to the center of the platform. But anyone who’s ventured into Boston’s system of stations — many dating back to the early 1900s — knows that’s not so here.
The T currently offers group training classes for people with disabilities who need extra assistance learning to use the public transit system; in some cases, T staff also provide one-on-one lessons.
But an app, Haile said, would provide riders with an option that allows them to exercise their independence, learning to navigate local T stations on their own terms.
“The T, in terms of transferring from train to train, can be complex for people,” Haile said. “You have to go through corridors and across platforms and down stairs — that’s a lot to keep in mind.”
Haile said Arlington Station was chosen for the test run because of its simple layout. But if the trial is successful, it could expand to other stations in the system — even Haymarket and State Street, which he said can be the most challenging station for someone who can’t see.
(Or even for someone who can.)