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App Will Help Blind, Visually Impaired Navigate San Antonio

VIA Metropolitan, the transit operator in San Antonio, Texas, has partnered with Spain-based startup NaviLens to pilot a wayfinding smartphone application for blind or low-vision transit riders.

The tip of a cane for the blind resting on the ground in front of someone's feet.
Visually impaired residents in San Antonio, Texas, can now turn to an app for assistance getting around the city by making transit more user-friendly. 

The technology, produced by NaviLens, makes wayfinding easier for visually impaired passengers by using codes placed on signage — similar to QR codes — which a smartphone, equipped with the NaviLens app, can easily pick up. The codes, often placed at transit stops, contain important information such as real-time bus schedules.

“VIA is always looking for ways to enhance the rider experience. The NaviLens technology provides riders more flexibility and helps them make connections more easily,” said Lorraine Pulido, communications manager for VIA Metropolitan Transit. 

In June, VIA will begin a six-month pilot with NaviLens in partnership with San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind. 

NaviLens codes are detectable from 20 to 150 feet away, depending on the size of the code, said Javier Pita, CEO of NaviLens. 

Visually impaired users do not need to know exactly where the code is placed. The codes are intended to “solve the last-few-yards wayfinding problem,” he added.

Despite GPS navigation becoming a major wayfinding tool for people who are blind or low-vision, GPS inaccuracy and inadequate map data brings users within the vicinity of their destination, but not to the exact location. 

“NaviLens codes help solve that problem,” said Pita.  

Other than real-time bus or train arrival data, the codes can be programed for delivering a range of pertinent information, such as the location of an elevator. The multi-colored, pixelated placards can be placed on train platforms, ticket kiosks, sidewalks and other locations.  

NaviLens is a transportation startup based in Spain and one of nine companies incubating within the Transit Tech Lab, an arm of the Transit Innovation Partnership in New York City. The company is currently working with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York City, as well as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The technology has been implemented in Spain’s Barcelona, Madrid, Alicante and Murcia transit systems, as well as museums, schools and offices in Europe, said Pita.  

Other transit agencies in Boston and Austin, Texas, have explored technology to aid visually impaired riders. In 2018, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) announced a partnership with the Perkins School for the Blind to contribute data to the app BlindWays, which combines GPS data with special clues to get users to the exact location of a bus stop.

At the same time, Capital Metro in Austin conducted a pilot project with Connecthings, an international technology firm that uses Bluetooth technology, beacons and other digital infrastructure to transform public spaces filled with street furniture, bus stops, monuments and more into connected points.

NaviLens is hardly the only tech improvement in San Antonio transit. In October, VIA launched a virtual customer assistant named AVA. It’s powered by the IBM Watson artificial intelligence technology. Using their phones, or the VIA website, customers can interact with AVA 24 hours a day and get answers to hundreds of inquiries. In addition, AVA can provide next bus arrival information, which is also powered by artificial intelligence, said Pulido. 

The transit agency has also launched the sort of on-demand, micro-ride-sharing service that’s becoming popular among a number of agencies to serve areas where fixed-route service is lacking. 

“Like Uber or Lyft service, customers can request a trip through a convenient app and can begin and end a trip anywhere within the pilot zone or connect with the regular VIA bus service to continue their trip,” Pulido explained. “The cost is the same of our regular fare of $1.30 with discounts offered to riders who qualify.” 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.