​Smartphones, Bluetooth beacons: The pairing that could help the blind catch the right bus

After weeks of testing, the city of Strasbourg in eastern France is now ready to roll-out a smartphone-based transport information system that could make travel much easier for visually-impaired people.

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Details of the next bus are given in real time based on the detection range of the BLE beacon approaching the person's smartphone at the bus stop.

Image: Connecthings

Contactless mobile-services firm Connecthings and CTS (Compagnie de Transports Strasbourgeois) the operator managing the city's public-transport network, have designed a system that could transform travel for blind and visually-impaired people.

With the European Blind Union estimating that about 30 million visually-impaired and blind people live in Europe, and the World Health Organization putting the number at 285 million worldwide, making transport systems accessible to all is a global issue.

Back in 2012, Connecthings linked up with Strasbourg Eurométropole to launch StrasPlus, the first connected-city mobile service in France.

By integrating the Connecthings Mobile SDK platform with more than 1,400 stickers on points of interest, such as libraries, tourist spots and bus stops, the public have been able to interact with city locations on their smartphones via NFC, QR codes or Wi-Fi technology.

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"StrasPlus makes the link between the physical and digital worlds by providing inhabitants with innovative, cross-universe, real-time information services," Connecthings CEO and founder Laetitia Gazel Anthoine says.

With the platform in place, CTS has been able to improve the public's experience of its transport services. StrasPlus stickers have been placed across the network advising passengers that a quick tap of their smartphone will, for example, give the current waiting time for the next bus.

Overall the system has been successful. However, through its work with local associations for the disabled, CTS discovered that changes needed to be made if it was to also improve city travel for the blind and visually-impaired.

Lina Tremisi, innovation manager at CTS, says: "We wanted to support the several thousand visually-impaired passengers who use our services each year."

As the Connecthings platform was already in place, the solution was related to software rather than hardware. This fact meant they could avoid too many technical and interoperability issues.

Connecthings' CEO Gazel Anthoine says: "To allow access for visually-impaired travellers, we expanded our services to trigger access to information based on a combination of beacons in buses and beacons at bus stops."

By adding BLE, or Bluetooth low energy, beacons on buses and adjusting the way the app communicates information, the companies have been able to produce a bus-arrival announcement system that provides users with precise vocal notifications.

For visually-impaired travellers waiting at a bus stop, it is essential to receive a notification giving number, line and direction information within seconds of the bus arriving, so they can be sure it is the correct one. This requirement is especially important for bus stops serving multiple lines.

The timing and details of the bus that's about to arrive are sent in real time, based on the detection range of the BLE beacon approaching the person's smartphone at the bus stop.

As the bus approaches the bus stop, the beacon 'wakes up' the transport app and sends a notification, such as: "Line 19, direction Arago, arrives in five seconds," which is immediately vocalized.

The vocal message will be automatically translated into the person's own language by detecting the language setup in the settings of the smartphone's operating system.

One of the major challenges has been to move from an information system that was based on the bus stop rather than bus arrivals.

"Beacons were placed behind the windscreens of the buses, but the initial range of 80 meters was not enough," explains Alain Caffart, information systems manager at CTS. "They had to be configured to be more powerful and now that range has been doubled to 160 meters."

Another issue was ensuring that the app was precise enough. "At first, by the time the application had reacted and announced the bus line, number and direction, the bus had already left," Caffart says.

However, once this issue was resolved, a six-week trial took place in 2015 between September and November. During this period, 12 buses from Strasbourg's 248-strong bus network were tested in a proof-of-concept exercise.

With a system now ready to be deployed, and plenty of positive feedback from various local associations for the disabled, the question remains when it will be rolled out across CTS's entire bus network.

CTS's Tremisi says: "The launch must integrate into CTS's plans to expand its network into Germany by 2017 and to adding several new bus and tram lines by 2020."

She confirms that the current aim is for the first part of the system to be launched ahead of the ITS European Congress in Strasbourg in June 2017, and the second part in 2018.

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