Why you should care

Because "seeing" the world more clearly will always be a good thing.

In America, mobility means freedom — to go places, meet people, embrace life. For city dwellers, mobility — even during COVID, maybe especially during COVID — involves navigating public transit. But for those like Marin Gundlach, blind since birth from a congenital disorder, the challenge of navigating transit systems can deter her from traveling at all.

Mostly because — and if you are sighted you wouldn’t notice — informational and directional transit signs are inaccessible and can’t be read by people who are blind or visually impaired.

“All new places are hard at first,” says Tim Fahlberg, a sighted teacher at the Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where Gundlach is a ninth grader. “But places that are big or loud have the biggest obstacles,” says Gundlach. 

Enter an app called NaviLens.

Launched by Spain’s University of Alicante’s Mobile Vision Research Lab and the technology company Neosistec, the app had early success helping people navigate transit and museums in Barcelona, Murcia and Madrid. In the U.S., it’s being tested at the Jay Street subway station in Brooklyn and at the Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. In the app, people use a smartphone camera to scan the codes — which are funky, colorfully patterned squares — to hear the information stored within them.

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There are two versions of the platform: NaviLens and NaviLens GO. They contain information, from timetables to descriptions of the surrounding environment, like how many feet away the staircase is, when the next A train is expected to arrive, or which lines are experiencing delays. And the sound plays back, just as a short clip does on a museum audio tour.

Moreover, it works both far and fast: The square graphic card can be detected by a phone from nearly 40 feet away in 1/30th of a second, doesn’t need the camera to be focused, and its info can be communicated in more than 20 languages. “It can help you find places — and that alone is really promising,” says Gundlach.

Inside the Jay Street subway station, more than 100 colorful squares hang on pillars and corners. Unlike QR codes — which are used to tag and identify items like at a grocery store — NaviLens tags can be reprogrammed with new information for other uses later. The technology also has the capacity to universally enhance the navigation experience for all kinds of transit riders, since NaviLens GO can support wheelchair users in subway stations by hipping them to elevator locations, for example. Or by playing videos in American Sign Language.

What’s more, public transit could just be the beginning. NaviLens could eventually help people navigate schools, hotels, restaurants and other public spaces for the benefit of all — not just those with disabilities.

In the meantime, Fahlberg and Gundlach are making their school a testing ground. NaviLens tags have been added outside restrooms so students, teachers and parents can better identify them, and student artwork hanging in the hallways has been labeled. Users can point their phone in the direction of the tag, which offers info about the artist and artwork. Scaling this approach to museums would “not only allow people who are blind or visually impaired to enjoy art, but also enable many other people with print disabilities who can’t access the text by art to enjoy it,” Fahlberg notes.

There are kinks in the system — if there are multiple tags in one location, it can be difficult to navigate properly between those tags and the app sometimes displays them out of order. But a world where NaviLens is rolled out across hospitals, malls, hotels and grocery stores? It could save blind and visually impaired people one of the most precious day-to-day utilities, and one that most of us take for granted: time.

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