London Tube Testing Bluetooth Beacons for Visually Impaired Passengers

Underground logoTechnology has come a long way in improving many aspects of our day-to-day lives. But we’ve become so used to being surrounded by sensors, screens and other devices that in many cases, we take them all for granted. That’s why regular passengers on the London Underground may not have noticed a special series of Bluetooth beacons placed along specific paths of select Tube stations.

These beacons are being used to test a new system that would help visually impaired passengers gain more independence when using the Underground. From the BBC:

Members of the Youth Forum of the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB) said they wanted to navigate the tube system independently.

Currently most have to rely on friends to help them get used to familiar routes or phone ahead to request assistance from London Underground staff. Many do not feel confident about using the whole network.

The beacon system was created with the help of a digital design group called ustwo. The beacons use Bluetooth to send audible signals to smartphones and other mobile devices. Passengers who have their devices set to pick up those signals will hear specific directions that guide them throughout Tube stations, allowing them to reach their destinations without the aid of another person.

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The London Underground but Overground

The map of the London Underground is world famous for its linear representation of train stations and lines. It was created by Harry Beck in the 1930s and subsequently became the standard by which other metro and subway maps were designed. The map uses a simple set of rules to great advantage, such as coloured lines, stations equally spaced, lines can only go horizontally, vertically or diagonally, curves always have the same radius and so on. Here’s a small section of the map showing some of these features (the whole map is copyright Transport for London).

However, we’re now so used this particular version, that it’s easy to forget that it represents a physical geography. With a mashup of Google Maps and station co-ordinates, Jonathan Stott has put together a representation of the London Underground, showing where the underground lines are in the real world. The image below is just a screenshot – if you go over to his website, you can play with the map.

It’s interesting to see where the underground lines actually go but it’s also worth reflecting that this is exactly what Harry Beck was trying to get away from 80 years ago.