Smart Cities for the Blind

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Smart Cities for the Blind

Would you be able to find your way across a big city at rush hour if you were visually impaired?

285 million visually impaired people worldwide are facing this challenge every day,
including blind, partially blind or colour blind persons, as well as elderly people with reduced vision.

When you can’t rely on visual signage, daily tasks like navigating complex urban environments, crossing busy intersections or identifying road names become challenging. And with the speed of city life constantly increasing, it is getting harder for visually impaired people to discover urban centres, and sometimes they avoid these spaces completely.

Inclusivity is a fundamental requirement of any ‘smart city’, so here are some examples of how new technologies and smart city solutions can help visually impaired persons navigate urban sites and fully experience city life.

A visually impaired man is using an Smart Phone to navigate at a bus station

GPS Wayfinding Apps

The implementation of accessible design into architectural planning is already standard in urban planning, yet orientation and navigation still pose challenges. Especially in unfamiliar areas, visually impaired people rely on assistive technologies to find their way.

The most popular solutions are GPS-powered navigation apps such as Seeing Eye GPS or BlindSquare. The user can enter their destination via voice command or type with the help of VoiceOver function, which is available on nearly every device. The GPS signals can tell users their location, calculate routes and transmit directions on mobile devices by sound or vibration signals.

This helps blind people get from A to B and participate in everyday life. But as helpful as these applications may be, they are not perfect. GPS signal can lack in accuracy and does not work indoors, making it hard to navigate around train stations or shopping centres. That’s where smart cities can turn to beacon technologies and other positioning systems.

Beacon-powered Smart Cities

Beacons are small transmitters placed around buildings that send real-time site information directly to mobile devices. They can be installed in public buildings, offices or small locations like bus stops.

Beacons send accurate location data to mobile devices in the area and work both indoor and outdoor. But they are capable of doing a lot more than that.

Adjusting to the specific location needs they can provide real-time information about the location of entrances to buildings, correct platform numbers and live information on approaching bus routes in a station, or information on the nearest assistant service providers. Visually impaired people with mobile devices can be notified via vibration or sound.

Infographic showing a bus and a figure at the station using a smartphone.
This kind of responsive technology allows visually impaired people to not only navigate complex buildings faster, but it also makes it much easier to plan a journey with public transport, to react to temporary changes and to travel independently without relying on external help.

A pilot project with beacon technologies is currently tested in the city of Warsaw. As part of the Virtual Warsaw project, the city has implemented beacons in public buildings all around the centre:

Tactile and Talking City Maps

Physical maps serve as a unique addition to their digital counterparts, positioning apps and beacons. While mobile devices can help someone to navigate on-site, physical maps have the scale to provide a global overview of a space. This kind of knowledge is crucial to helping people with visual impairments feel empowered, confident and safe in a city.

A visually impaired person is discovering a 3D-printed map with their fingers.
Tactile city maps are easy to read and can offer useful details on distances, building structure, street gradients and other topographical features. Combine this with audio components and you get rich additional information like street and place names and even live transport data.

This creates tactile and talking maps, tailored to the needs of blind people, like the ones developed by the LightHouse organisation. Audio-tactile technology allows the maps to maintain a clean design and provide easily changeable information. The information can be accessed with smart pen and doesn’t rely on the users’ Braille skills.

A tactile map with a Smart Pen
With the rise of 3D-printing the production of tactile maps is getting much faster, easier and cheaper. This technology allows embossed maps to be printed with architectural diagrams of the current state of buildings within just a few minutes. When cities invest in making the software for topographic maps accessible, visually impaired people will be able to print out up-to-date maps at home before starting a trip.

Smart Cities for All

In the end, making a place accessible is all about communication. Technologies like apps, beacons and audio-tactile maps offer new and inclusive ways to communicate location-based data that don’t rely on visuals alone. Incorporating technologies like these ensures that every member of a city’s population has access to the information they need in a format they can access, constituting a major step towards a truly inclusive ‘smart city’.

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