Navigating Urban Spaces: Indoor and Outdoor Wayfinding Technology for the Visually Impaired

Navigating an unfamiliar place is a unique challenge for people with disabilities. People who are blind, deafblind, visually impaired or visually impaired, as well as those who use wheelchairs, can navigate more independently in urban areas with effective wayfinding technology. A new report from the National Institute of Transportation and Communities (NITC) explores how to take advantage of low-cost methods to make it easier for people to get around public, urban indoor and outdoor spaces.

The study, led by Martin Swobodzinski and Amy Parker of Portland State University, used focus groups, two case studies, and an in-person structured orientation experience on the PSU campus to find the best ways to more useful to move around. Tactile maps have proven to be a very useful resource, with an accessible mobile app also showing promise as an orientation and mobility aid.

The researcher will share more details about this project in a free webinar on December 15: Individual Orientation in the Context of Visual Impairment, Blindness and Deafblindness.

Guidance environments and tools that support safe and confident mobility have been associated with better employment outcomes, better access to higher education and improved quality of life. The results of this study improve our understanding of how visually impaired and blind people find their way around the world. The researchers hope that the findings of the study will support the development of standards and innovations in mobile wayfinding with respect to the integration of indoor and outdoor wayfinding and routing for visually impaired, blind and pedestrian travelers. deaf-blind.

Despite the proliferation of wayfinding apps for travelers, the effectiveness of these tools remains limited. This study gave voice to the experience of diverse travelers who use wayfinding technologies to accomplish important life tasks. In addition to the findings discussed in more detail below, the researchers hope that analysis of the remaining data will provide insight into the information needs of visually impaired, blind, and deafblind pedestrian travelers.

The project sought answers to three questions:

  • What are the preference structures, information needs and expectations of visually impaired, blind and deafblind people regarding wayfinding in indoor/outdoor public spaces?
  • How can low-cost wayfinding technology (e.g., digital maps, spatial data, personal telecommunication devices and low-power beacons) be best harnessed to enable seamless wayfinding of pedestrian travelers with functional disabilities in indoor/outdoor urban public spaces?
  • What guidance technologies, data products, and technology platforms enable sustainable and scalable deployment in a large academic institution?

College campuses are notoriously complex to navigate, especially for travelers with visual impairments. One of the main barriers that people from diverse cultures and languages ​​face in accessing higher education is seeing themselves as full members of an academic community. As a public university located in the heart of downtown Portland, the PSU campus was an ideal setting for this experience as it offers realistic orientation scenarios and mobility challenges in a public urban environment. Additionally, PSU’s commitment to community service, equity, and inclusiveness aligns with the project’s goals of promoting community participation and access.

The researchers began with a review of the existing literature on the topic: Guidance Tools for People with Visual Impairment in Real-World Settings: A Literature Review of Recent Studies.

Case studies

The team conducted an initial pilot case study with a single participant, a deafblind adult. The full findings of this case study have been published in Frontiers in Education: Seamless Orientation by a Deafblind Adult on an Urban College Campus: A Case Study of Orientation Performance, Information Preferences, and Technology Requirements. The participant completed three routes around the PSU campus using either a mobile app, written instructions, or a tactile map. For this participant, confidence and orientation performance were the lowest for the mobile app, while the touch map offered the highest orientation performance, confidence and satisfaction, and execution time. the fastest.

A second case study involved a traveler with combined vision and hearing loss, who also had work experience as an O&M specialist serving the visually impaired in multiple states. This participant’s professional and personal experiences helped the research team refine their testing protocol. The initial objective of the project was to compare three methods of orientation assistance: tactile maps, verbal instructions and “GoodMaps”, an accessible navigation application for iPhone and Android. In line with this participant’s ideas, the researchers eliminated verbal instructions from the next phase of the experiment.

Orientation experience

In a larger experience, participants were asked to participate in a series of orientation tasks, navigating three short routes around campus with indoor and outdoor elements. Accompanied by an experimenter with professional experience in Orientation and Mobility, the participants were invited to follow two different routes using one of the two possible orientation supports: a tactile map for one and the GoodMaps mobile application for the other.

A total of 28 people took part in the main data collection phase of the study and completed the experiment: 21 teenagers (aged 14 to 18) and seven adults. Participants included people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with varying levels of visual impairment. The immediate next step for the research team is to consolidate individual-level data for each of the 28 participants, and to code and assess their observed orientation behavior and performance. While data analysis is still ongoing for the 28 participants, early results from both case studies indicate that the tactile map provided the most effective wayfinding support.

Discussion groups

The research team conducted two focus groups, one with eight blind or visually impaired adults who had no hearing loss, and another with nine deafblind participants who use Tactile American Sign Language or American Sign Language short-range visual. Collective themes from both focus groups included both the hope and promise of wayfinding apps to provide greater environmental awareness during real-world travel, and the limitations of using such apps.

Both groups expressed the need for apps to be designed in collaboration with visually impaired travelers, due to the unique limitations of apps in dynamic travel conditions. A specific theme that emerged among visually impaired travelers was that they had to use multiple apps to complete a single route, as each app is useful for a subset of wayfinding tasks.

A more detailed description of the results of the focus group with deafblind participants is provided in the Frontiers in Education article: The use of wayfinding apps by deafblind travelers in urban settings: insights from the focus groups.

This study is the result of several innovative partnerships. The project’s principal investigator, Martin Swobodzinski, is an associate professor of geography at PSU, specializing in human orientation, spatial cognition, accessibility, and human-computer interaction. In 2017, he and Amy Parker of PSU’s Department of Special Education began this work by collaborating on an NITC Small Starts project: Electronic Wayfinding for Visually Impaired Travellers: Limitations and Opportunities. The current project builds on this research.

Parker is the Coordinator of PSU’s Orientation and Mobility Program, an Orientation and Mobility Specialist (O&M) preparation program that was launched in 2017. The program has launched several initiatives, including interactive workshops of O&M in partnership with TriMet and a new conference in Portland, the Mobility Matters Summit, organized for the fifth year in 2022.

The collaborative research team included Swobodzinski, Parker, and graduate students in geography and special education, as well as Elizabeth Schaller and Denise Snow from the American Printing House for the Blind. GoodMaps, the wayfinding mobile app used in the study, was created by the American Printing House for the Blind. GoodMaps has engaged with Intel developers to refine the accuracy of spatial information.

In May 2021, the GoodMaps team began scanning PSU’s Smith Memorial Student Union onsite using Lidar equipment. In November of the same year, GoodMaps collaborated with PSU’s Disability Resource Center to welcome interested students and staff with visual impairments to informally assess the installation of technology within SMSU. In December 2021, the refined version of the GoodMaps facility was ready for evaluation by research participants.

Portland State University’s Digital City Testbed Center (DCTC) is working to establish a network of campuses in the Pacific Northwest where smart city technologies can be tested before being deployed in the communities at large. DCTC support for this project enabled the hiring of a graduate research assistant, Julie Wright, who assisted in meeting project milestones and creating project deliverables.

This research was funded by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities, with additional support from Portland State University, PSU Digital City Testbed Center, and the American Printing House for the Blind.

About the project

Title: Seamless Wayfinding of People with Functional Disabilities in Indoor and Outdoor Spaces: A Survey of Lived Experiences, Data Needs, and Technology Requirements

Authors: Martin Swobodzinski and Amy Parker, Portland State University

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