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Technological Developments Which Could Improve Accessibility of Transport Systems

John Gill

 

Over the next few years there are likely to be significant changes to the provision of information to travellers.  However the designers and procurers are not always considering how the needs of people with disabilities can be addressed by these mainstream systems.

Journey planning has been simplified by various web-based services, but these systems can rarely cope with people with special needs.  A typical request could be that the traveller should not have to walk up more than 10 steps or walk more than 100 metres.  It is also important for the user to get appropriate re-routing information in the event of a service disruption.  All this is technically possible but it will require far greater integration of systems which are currently stand-alone.

Satellite Navigation Systems
Over the next few years there is likely to be a dramatic increase in services for the general public which are based on knowing your location. Satellite navigation in cars is already widely used. A mobile phone handset is another device on which it will be possible to request the location of the nearest bank and be provided with instructions on how to reach it.
The possible scenarios for providing people with specific information at a location, or about their location, could allow a blind person to carry a device which received audible information about where they were, what their surroundings were like and what was available. This person could set their device to only provide information on such things as the route they could take to reach a destination. The complexity of information could vary depending upon the place. A railway station would provide information on ticket machines, platforms and other facilities. A road junction may only provide information on options for crossing the road and which directions a person could take.

It would be possible to place information ‘tags’ or devices at every important place. These could allow all people to carry a device to pick up the information. Overseas visitors who would like information in their language could use the system.
Another advantage for a blind person or a visitor who did not know their way around, would be an alert that told them that they were travelling in the wrong direction. If they had set their device to help them get to a certain place, the system could interact with them to guide them accurately to their destination.

There are many questions that arise about how to make these scenarios workable. For example, how would the information be kept up to date, especially for problems such as road works or detours on pavements? However, the possibilities to help tourists and provide innovative services mean that location based systems should be developed. The additional potential benefits for people with disabilities and visitors would be of great social value.

Emergency services often need to know the precise location of an incident. A blind user may not be able to describe their position, so the ability to transmit information specifying their location could be invaluable. Ideally, the alarm system that operates in and around their home should also work when they are away from home without the user having to do anything.

There have been a number of trials of stand-alone electronic beacons; commonly these use infra-red or radio to give pre­recorded audio messages for the blind pedestrian. However, the difference between these and the new systems under development is that the new systems will be part of an integrated network. They will use short-range radio technology such as RFID, Bluetooth, WiFi and WiMax.

These short range systems will be used in conjunction with long range systems, such as mobile phones, where the network knows the approximate position of the user. For more accurate positional information, the systems may be supplemented by satellite positioning systems (such as the American GPS, the Russian GLONASS or in the future, the European Galileo system). These systems predominantly rely on line-of-sight to a number of satellites and so have low levels of coverage indoors, and relatively poor position accuracy when used in urban canyons. However, the latest high sensitivity receivers, and a technique known as ‘Assisted GPS’ will improve indoor coverage and the accuracy and availability in urban canyons.

Information about one's position is of limited use unless it can be related to the real environment. So these systems are usually linked to a database which may include information normally found on a map plus other related information (e.g. the scheduled times of buses from a particular bus stop or the time until the next bus arrives). In addition the database could include accessibility information.
For these systems to be of practical benefit to blind people, they must be:

 

RFID
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is evolving as a major technology with a growing number of uses. Initially it has been used to track goods and assets in retail, manufacturing, hospitals and storage systems, but it has evolved to have many applications outside of these areas. RFID is the technology behind car key-fobs, public transport access (such as the London Transport Oyster card), ski resort lift passes and security badges for access control into buildings.
RFID is a contactless technology that transmits the identity of an object, such as a unique serial number, using radio waves. A typical RFID system is made up of three components: tags, readers and the host computer system.

A RFID tag is a tiny radio device that contains a microchip attached to a small flat aerial. This can be encapsulated in different materials, such as plastic, dependent upon its intended use. A tag can be attached to an object. This object can be read remotely to ascertain its identity, position or state.

The reader, or scanner, sends and receives radio frequency data to and from the tag via antennas. A reader may have multiple antennas that are responsible for sending and receiving radio waves.

The host computer is linked to the reader and can have specialist software designed to process the received data.
When RFID systems are used in conjunction with allied technologies they can remotely sense objects of all types to determine their identity and track their position. They can also be designed to detect other properties.

Because radio waves are used, a RFID tag does not need line­of-sight to operate. The tag can be hidden inside an item or carried on a card or ticket and still be read. A tag can also be fixed to a wall or embedded in a floor. It can then be read automatically as it is passed.

A RFID system can also read many tags together at once. All tags within the range of the reader can be read almost simultaneously as they pass the reader.

There are a range of different radio frequencies in use for RFID tags. An active tag, which incorporates a power source such as a battery, can be read at a far greater range for a given transmitter power. Typically, a passive tag can be read at distances of less than a metre but active tags can have a range in excess of 10 metres.

An important feature of RFID is that data can be written to the tag. The tags can be made with different memory capacities; with extra memory there is the possibility to store extra information. For instance, it could store a list of ingredients. This could be useful for someone with a nut allergy since a simple device could warn them of hazardous products.

Many people, even those with good eyesight, find it difficult to read labels on such things as medicine bottles. With RFID it would be possible for instructions to be transmitted onto a screen so that they can be read using a larger typeface.
Another possibility would be for the washing machine to incorporate a tag reader, and for the tags on clothes to include information about the washing temperature required; then the washing machine could automatically select the correct washing programme.

RFID tags are already used by some blind people to label their possessions (e.g. CDs), and they have a reader with speech output to help them select the correct item. However, there are many more potential applications of benefit to people with disabilities. For instance, active RFID tags could be used to label shops in a shopping centre or exhibits in a museum so that users could obtain audio information about exhibits in a choice of languages.

RFID tags could be embedded in the pavement to give information in audio form to a blind pedestrian. The tags could be part of a painted line, with the blind person using a cane with a transceiver aerial in the tip. The information stored could be the names of shops, bus stops or information about a choice of directions to various destinations.

Smart Card Systems
Smart cards have great potential to make life easier for people with disabilities. There are over a thousand million smart cards in use in Europe today. A smart card is the size of a credit card, and incorporates an electronic chip.
A diagram showing the chip inside a smartcard
Two photographs of oyster cards being scannedThe amount of information this chip can carry and the way smart cards can be used has been evolving over many years. Many of us are familiar with these cards. We use them as pre­paid cards to pass transport barriers (Oyster cards), as credit and debit cards, as security access cards to buildings and for such things as medical or identity records.
Smart cards can be:

Vicinity cards are not yet in general use but may be used in the foreseeable future for ticketing. The receiving aerial would be around the doorway of the bus, and the maximum fare for the route could be taken from the card on entering the bus and the unused part refunded on leaving the bus. This could be very helpful for a person with a disability who was restricted in their ability to use a city’s ticket machines.

For visitors, smart cards that allow pre-payment will help speed up the entry and exit to public transport and also to venues such as sports stadiums and concerts. Where large numbers of people need to be managed, smart cards improve speed of processing payments and the ability to allocate revenues and subsidies between various operators.
Because smart cards can carry specific information, they can be used to deliver this information or instructions to a terminal, an access barrier, a machine, an environment control system, and many other devices. Because it is possible for more than one application to be held on a smart card it is not necessary for a person to have a large number of different cards.

A smart card can hold information on how a person prefers to use a terminal or interface. For example, a person with low vision at a ticket machine may prefer a specific size and colour of text on the screen. People with other disabilities may need more time, speech or audio output, more simplified choices or a different language. As soon as the person is finished the machine can revert to a default setting.

Smart cards and their use continues to evolve. The amount of information they carry will increase, the range at which they can be used will improve and security will continue to get better.

The EN 1332 series of standards specify:

Mobile Communications
Twenty years ago only a few businessmen lugged about heavy expensive mobile phones. Nowadays, no self-respecting teenager is without their mobile which can be customised (both facias and ringing tones) to suit the image required. For teenagers these phones are often mainly used for text messaging. Mobile phones now come with a growing number of additional features such as mp3 music players, digital cameras, television programme downloads, interactive games, etc. As these devices continue to develop, the needs of people with disabilities have been given low priority by the manufacturers and network operators.

Network operators continue to launch new mobile services based on GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and 3G (third generation), which can provide high speed access to the internet. These include the transmission of data which can be just text, text plus graphics, still pictures, or video.

Plans for fourth generation systems are beginning to be discussed publicly. These are expected to be operational by 2012. An interesting feature is that access by people with disabilities is being considered - an aspect which was notably lacking in the earlier generation plans.

Mobile telephones increasingly require the user to read a small screen to operate many of the functions in the phone. Although the phones incorporate increasingly powerful microprocessors, few manufacturers have seen a commercial opportunity in providing models which incorporate speech output of the messages normally displayed on the screen.
However, changes in the legislation in the USA have meant that manufacturers are now developing a range of accessibility features including output of visually presented information in braille or synthetic speech.

Mobile phone systems have the ability to provide information about the location of the user. In older systems, this was just the cell from which the call was being made. However, 3G systems can provide more precise information, and in future the 4G systems will further improve the accuracy.

This positional information means that information can be provided to the user which is related to their location. For instance, it could provide information about the location of the nearest cash dispenser.

The mobile phone could hold a digital map of the area (or it could be downloaded from the network). This could be supplemented with information about bus timetables or roadworks which block the pavement.

Intelligent agents in the network could automatically re-direct calls selectively to different terminals; for instance, in the evening, calls, other than from family members, would be re­directed to an answering service. For disabled visitors, the calls could be automatically routed via a relay service, enabling translation into other languages or modalities (such as sign language).

The 3G phones have the capability to transmit and receive video which could offer the possibility of someone in a service centre providing guidance to a blind pedestrian who is unable to find their destination. Such a facility could also support remote sign language interpretation.

The mobile phone can also permit access to the internet, but the size of the screen is a significant limitation for many partially sighted users.

It is predicted that mobile access to television broadcasts will become increasingly popular as more radio spectrum becomes available for these services. It is not known whether the broadcasters will include subtitles and audio description, and how this would work in practice on a mobile handset.

Wireless Systems
The advantages of wireless systems are that devices, machines and terminals can communicate with each other without the need to be physically connected. This technology is already widely applied to portable electronic devices, including mobile phones, laptop computers, digital cameras and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), using technologies such as Bluetooth or WiFi.

Environments can now be monitored using sensors that wirelessly communicate to a control centre. In applications such as smart housing, devices such as door bells, temperature monitoring systems, CCTV cameras, ventilation and safety control systems can be interconnected. Venues such as sports stadiums, entertainment complexes, hotels or conference centres can be designed to take full advantage of wireless systems to not only monitor the environments but also to monitor such things as the movement of people and control of crowds. Combined with RFID technology, wireless systems can significantly improve security.

One of the main devices that use wireless communication are mobile phones. Nearly everyone carries one, and their use in helping people connect to other devices is likely to grow considerably as designers and engineers continue to explore possibilities.

For people with disabilities, wireless systems can provide new ways to guide people, deliver specific information to an assistive device or provide instructions on how to operate a terminal or machine. For example, a wireless system that transmitted transport information to mobile telephones within a certain range could be very helpful to a blind person. This is a viable possibility that would be vandal proof and low cost. Other types of public terminals such as cash machines could also use this type of system.

Another potential application is to use a wireless enabled mobile phone handset at a sports or entertainment venue. Using their handset, disabled people could indicate that they need more time to pass a barrier, or that they need navigation guidance or information on the event.

At road crossings, a person could indicate that they want to cross the road and need more than the standard time to complete the crossing. They could also receive audio information about road junctions or the destination of trains and buses.

At a cash dispenser or ticket machine, a person with a smart card could instruct the machine to send speech output to a particular mobile phone handset. So the text on the screen of the cash dispenser would be presented as speech. This does not involve a phone call, but just uses the handset which includes a wireless interface, such as Bluetooth.

New wireless technology allows hearing aids to be used in both ears rather than just one. This improvement creates possibilities for better audio communication to people with hearing loss. Wireless technology will allow people in museums, galleries, conference centres or venues to receive audio descriptions. Their personal device could request the descriptions in their specific language.

Safety warnings can also be transmitted automatically when a sensor detects a device carried by a person with a disability. This would be particularly important for people with low vision or hearing loss.

To allow elderly people to live or travel more independently wireless technology can make their home, sheltered accommodation or hotel more easy to monitor. As well as monitoring and controlling the environment, messages could be automatically transmitted to warn the actual person or someone responsible for their care. Hotels could use these systems to provide facilities for people who needed extra care or assistance.

Universal Remote Control standards and support services have been developed to promote the use of standard household networking technologies (WiFi, ZigBee and HomePlug, for example) that can provide a means for a low cost and gradual evolution of a standard home, office or venue into an intelligent controllable environment. Further information can be found at www.myurc.com.

NFC
Near Field Communication (NFC) has evolved from a combination of contactless identification (RFID) and interconnection technologies. It enables a user to exchange all kinds of information simply by bringing two devices close together. For instance, a mobile phone or PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) could act as a ticket on public transport instead of using a contactless smart card.

In order to make two devices communicate, they need to be brought together (within 10cm) or make them touch. This will automatically initiate communication between the two devices. Once configuration data has been exchanged, the devices can then set up longer range communication with faster protocols such as Bluetooth or WiFi.

Unlike traditional RFID readers, with NFC you are not scanning for every tag within range. NFC eliminates indiscriminate reading that raises privacy issues, and it also saves battery power. NFC operates at the same frequency as a contactless smart card. When the connection has been made a mobile phone can vibrate to let the user know it has worked.

An important aspect of the design of new NFC devices is that it can allow a person to use a device they are familiar with, such as their mobile phone, to link to a simple interface. This makes the system easy to operate for people who are not good with technology. This can also be very helpful for people with disabilities.

The range of potential applications includes the interconnection of digital cameras, PDAs, set-top boxes, computers and mobile phones. For instance a poster, advertising a concert, could contain a NFC electronic chip. By touching a tag on the poster with a mobile phone, information about the concert could be downloaded to the phone.

Tickets could be directly purchased and stored on a phone handset. On arriving at the venue the user would only have to touch their phone on a reader at the entrance gate.

At a bus stop, simply touching their mobile phone on a NFC­enabled sign would automatically allow travel information to be read out using the phone speaker. In general, this technology could make the user interface on many public terminals significantly easier to use by many people with disabilities.

By touching a mobile phone on a poster, as shown on the right, information about an event can be downloaded. However, users will find it easier if there is a standard icon to indicate where to touch, and if the icon is a consistent height from the ground. It would also be helpful to have standardised feedback to indicate a successful connection, preferably both visual and auditory. A different signal will also be needed to indicate failed or incomplete connection.
Also, a travel ticket could be downloaded onto a mobile phone. The user would then be able to pass through barriers by touching the phone to an icon at the barriers.

Near Field Communication could also be used to download additional information such as timetables, travel instructions and maps.

Integration
In the longer term, all these technologies will be integrated and be able to automatically interrogate a range of databases (such as the status of roadworks in the area).  This leads to ambient intelligent systems which provide information tailored to the individual’s needs and in their preferred mode of presentation.  Although this sounds futuristic, a number of projects have developed a range of pilot systems tailored for specific groups of people with disabilities.

Standardisation
To bring about full and seamless integration, including both technical and user interfaces, will require a high degree of collaboration between all the stakeholders. One possibility would be for there to be a European or international standard defining the requirements in a form which does not inhibit future developments when new technologies become available. For such a standard to become mandatory would probably require a European directive.

The standards need to cover the structure of the content and network, as well as the design of the terminals. Accessibility needs to be considered in all three areas. However, it is not sufficient to just follow accessibility checklists for the various components; accessibility must be evaluated for the integrated system as a whole.

The longer the delay in preparing appropriate standards, particularly those for the user interface, the harder it will be to reach a consensus on the optimum specification. While these standards are being developed, it is essential that they are thoroughly tested with users with a wide range of abilities, especially those with disabilities.

User-centred Design
Involving user representatives early in the product design cycle is referred to as user-centred design. It is important to ask user groups to participate in usability testing before a product or service is ready to go to market. A product or service that does not meet the users' needs is likely to fail in the marketplace.

There are organisations and groups that represent a particular disability. It can be very beneficial for industry to work with these groups, particularly if they ensure that they include a wide spectrum of user needs. Representatives such as these often need guidance from industry on how to be involved in an effective development programme. This should cover areas such as research, design, marketing and standards-writing.

To establish and get the best from a body of user representatives, it is very beneficial to set up training and mentoring programs. These can ensure that user representatives learn more about the technologies involved and the design processes, as well as such aspects as legislative and regulatory frameworks. In addition, skills can be taught such as business procedures, public relations and communication skills, as well as the principles of representing wider group interests rather than just the representatives’ own accessibility interests.

Some of this may seem common sense to industry professionals, but people with disabilities can benefit from learning to combine their personal experience of disability with professional skills. When guidance, interaction and feedback take place between industry and representatives of disability interests, better results can be achieved for all concerned.

Users must not have to understand the technology to use it and most will have no desire to think about it. Information should be delivered to the users on their own existing devices (such as a mobile phone). Therefore interfaces must be straightforward and meaningful without the user being overwhelmed by options and menus. Ambient intelligent systems must be intuitive and easy to use so that the individual can interact with the services without effort.

So will individuals embrace ambient intelligence? An intelligent service will only be used if it is seen to be of benefit without effort and with no risk of compromising privacy. This will require resources to be devoted to educating people with disabilities about the possibilities and limitations of various ambient intelligent systems.

However a service will need to be provided to help people with disabilities identify which options will best meet their individual needs, configure systems to be usable by that individual, and provide training and support in the use of these services.

Regulation and Legislation
At present few companies see a business case for offering integrated systems appropriate for people with disabilities.  When the market does not deliver accessible systems, it may be necessary to invoke mandatory regulation or legislation.  However before that can happen it is necessary to be clear as to the precise user needs.

Integrated systems offer the possibility of making life easier for many people with disabilities. It is up to government departments, standards organisations, commercial companies and user organisations to work together to ensure that people with disabilities benefit from these technological developments.

 

 

 



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