Software Development

A new wayfinding app for vision-impaired users found its way to DC

The UK's Waymap, which is making DC its US home, is designed to help people who are blind or have limited vision move around the city.

Waymap's wayfinding technology.

(Courtesy image)

Before UK-based Tom Pey set out to found his wayfinding app, Waymap, in 2017, he had a question that needed answering by the vision-impaired community he was making a product for. Pey, who is blind, wanted to know: What would have the biggest impact on your day-to-day life?

“They came back pretty much to a T and said: ‘We just want to be able to get around London, just like anyone else,'” Waymap cofounder and CTO Tim Murdoch told Technical.ly.

Waymap attempts to solve this issue with a new approach to location technology. The 2017-founded startup doesn’t require any additional infrastructure or equipment beyond a smartphone. The app just uses its software to track people where they move, with enough accuracy to give directions like, “In three steps, turn left for the stairs.” The app is in the midst of growing in DC, its flagship market in the US.

The company was recently named one of seven members of Verizon’s Forward for Good Accelerator (including Gallaudet U’s videoconferencing platform AppTek). The accelerator, which was launched in April in partnership with NYC entrepreneurship agency Alley, is a 16-week program for applicants to create leading technology for individuals with disabilities in 5G, MEC, AI and XR. Alongside industry mentorship, each cohort member will nab $50,000 in funding to scale their startup.

With the help of the accelerator, Murdoch hopes, Waymap will be walking users across the city by the end of the year and will be able to get someone from door to door anywhere in DC in about 18 months. Achieving that, he said, will mean new freedom for users who will be able to move anywhere with only their mobile phone for help.

“We know where they are within a couple of steps,” Murdoch said. “And if we’ve got that level of accuracy, we can completely change their life.”

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Waymap works like this, per the CTO: It spots the steps a user takes through the accelerometer on a phone (think step counter) and measures how large the users’ steps are and where they’re heading. This, alongside some additional information such as changes in height from the barometer, gets fed into an algorithm that measures where someone is. The data is then fused together through a particle filter, he said, which Waymap uses to train its algorithm to know how well and where users are walking. The algorithm is converted into C before being used by Android or iOS systems, and Waymap uses the cloud to deliver maps to the app.

The result, Murdoch said, is an app that can help people not only move around better, but help them feel more comfortable moving around in new routes and going to new places.

“Impairment has such a massive social isolation impact on people’s lives that I think one of the biggest things we will do is give people the confidence just to get outside the front door,” Murdoch said, “and try not just go to the local shop, but maybe go to the museum, go to the theater, go to find a job.”

With the accelerator, Murdoch said Waymap hopes to move the company’s algorithm to edge computing using 5G. Doing that, he said, will make it possible to drive down the costs and device profiles of using the app, making it more accessible to lower-income users. He also thinks the change would make it possible to analyze a whole group of people at once, instead of just one person. With these changes, the 25-person startup is also planning to scale up its team in DC and the rest of the US.

As Waymap rolls out in DC and the rest of the US, Murdoch thinks it will have a huge impact on the vision-impaired community —  especially those seeking employment, as it can be especially difficult for members of the community to find jobs. Plus, he noted, the app has the potential to help others, as well, including those with mobility impairments and the elderly.

“Citywide, it’s going to completely change how people perceive the opportunities, the needs, the value this brings to people and the impact that we can have,” Murdoch said. “It’s going to be so huge that we do believe other places … are going to be very interested.”

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