Inclusive Design

Advancing the design of NavCog

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Every day, over 2.5 million people travel in and out of airports[1]. While air traveling has become an integral part of our lives and despite efforts to provide entertainment, comfort, and assistance, airports cause stress and anxiety. In fact, a recent study found that about 80% of people feel tense when traveling through the airport[2].

Now imagine trying to navigate an airport without being able to access signs or having to rely on someone to guide you or provide information.

Chieko walking down a hall

Inaccessible Airports

Airports are not designed to be accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired. The giant airport maze is a problem that people who are blind must cope with every day – they often need to rely on aides from airlines to help guide them. We conducted interviews with a few travelers who are blind to better understand their experience and our findings were both enlightening and disconcerting:

  1. Aides often show up late or not at all. People who are blind sometimes must wait 20 minutes or more for their aides.
  2. When the aides arrive, they often bring a wheelchair because airlines do not differentiate between diverse types of disabilities. Our participants expressed feelings of frustration and denigration by the wait and this disregard for their needs.
  3. Aides are rarely trained in etiquette for assisting people who are blind.
  4. Aides are only allowed to take participants on brief excursions for entertainment or food through the airport. People who are blind are often kept in waiting areas rather than allowed to freely explore an airport and find amenities and entertainment for themselves. The result is that during long layovers or flight delays, people who are blind are unable to do basic things like find food or walk around the airport to stretch their legs; they are only assisted in reaching their destination, not in enjoying their journey.

What is NavCog?

IBM Research and Carnegie Mellon University are working on helping people who are blind independently navigate through airports using an iOS app called NavCog. The current NavCog application aims to give blind users the ability to independently navigate large indoor areas. It uses low-energy Bluetooth-enabled beacons fitted within the indoor space to provide more granularity in navigation. NavCog can estimate the users’ location with high accuracy (average: 1.65m). Other, existing indoor navigation systems are less inaccurate and errors in localization can range from 5 to 10m.

Our project – a summary

Our project goal was to redesign NavCog to be suited to helping people navigate through airports. We designed a voice-first interface because our participants said that they would need to be able to use NavCog hands-free (because they would be either using their cane or holding their dog’s harness with one hand and likely holding a suitcase with the other).

The redesigned NavCog, with the new Explore Mode feature, allows people to quickly and independently find, navigate, and explore points of interest in airport spaces such as restaurants or amenities. It also integrates with airport notification systems to provide real time updates regarding flight details and gate information so that people who are blind can feel confident and stress-free while traveling.

Preliminary testing shows that the redesigned NavCog was very positively received. Although NavCog is still in the initial stages of development, it has already been shown to be valuable and represents a great stride in making indoor spaces more accessible for everyone.

The others on the team who led this redesign and co authored this blog were Uthi Thiyagarajah, Raden Tonev, Neha Nuguru, Maddy Devetski, Lexi Landis, and Kyu Kim.

Uthi Thiyagarajah HeadshotHeadshot of Raden TonevNeha Nuguru HeadshotMaddy Devetski HeadshotLexi Landis HeadshotKyu Kim Headshot

For more information about NavCog please reach out to Masashi A Oikawa at MOIK@jp.ibm.com.

1 – https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/by_the_numbers/

2 – Jones, N. (2011, June). Stress & Airport Traveling.

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