How the Simple QR Code Became an Empowering Navigation Tool

On Tech & Vision with Dr. Cal Roberts 

This episode’s big idea is navigation and how to implement a navigation solution that enables people with vision impairment to broadly travel cities — how and when they want to, independently. Dr. Roberts talks with Javier Pita, the creator of such a technology called NaviLens, which marries location finding with information.  Dr. Roberts also talks with representatives of New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority — one of the biggest transportation hubs in the world. They discuss the importance of accessible public transportation for people who are visually impaired and how NaviLens technology can help make independent navigation a reality.

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Podcast Transcription

Gian Pedulla

Transportation is key, and in today’s day and age it still remains a major barrier to the disabled community.  It’s a major barrier for employment, but it’s a major barrier to quality of life as well.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Gian Carlo Pedulla’s vision has been declining over time due to Leber congenital amaurosis which is a family of congenital retinal dystrophies that results in severe vision loss at an early age.  He describes himself as almost totally blind at this point.

Gian Pedulla

You think about the typical able-bodied person, a typical sighted person, you can run around as you please for the most part.  You can grab a bus.  You can grab a train.  You can run around and move around the city as autonomously, as freely as you’d like.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Gian is the supervisor for New York City’s Department of Education, for he oversees the educational vision services for students in the five boroughs who are blind or are visually impaired.  He also serves on the advisory committee for transit accessibility for New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, or the MTA.

Gian Pedulla

You don’t have to live your life in a predetermined, scheduled, routinized fashion, scheduling all your trips one to two days in advance, allowing for no flexibility.  Allowing for no spontaneity.  If a person with a disability has a job but then their boss turns around and says, “Hey Gian, the holidays are coming up.  Do you want to do some OT tonight?”  No, I’m sorry.  My Accessoride’s picking me up at five.  I can’t.

What kind of dignity is that?

Mira Philipson

I’m a huge transit nerd.  I come from Barnard College where I studied urban planning.  And just got so wrapped up in the amazingness that is the subway specifically, although I’ve come to love busses as well.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Mira Philipson is an accessibility analyst also for the MTA.  The New York City MTA manages the city’s subways, busses, and trains.

Mira Philipson

One of the pieces of transit that I’m most passionate about is that equity side.  Public transportation is the answer to so much inequity across all urban areas and non-urban areas.  And while some people, their first thought when you think of equity in public transit is financially and also reach.  For me, thinking about it from the accessibility perspective in terms of disabilities and EDA was huge.  It’s really amazing when you think about how much scarier and more difficult and longer it takes depending on your disability.  It could be scary to navigate the system for anyone.

If we can work to make the system feel safer, as safe as possible for any range of abilities, that would be an enormous win and a huge piece of making public transit truly public transit.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Today’s big idea is navigation, specifically, how can you implement a navigation solution so broadly that it will enable people with vision impairment to travel the city how and when they want to on their own?

Here’s a hint.  It takes a village.  Or a city.  Today we’ll talk to Javier Pita, the founder and inventor of Navilens, a technology so simple and seamless we can envision a world with it everywhere.  But first, I want to take a minute to describe this technology.

If you’re a sighted person, you’ve probably come across QR codes, or quick response codes, right?  Those black and white squares that are sometimes on subway advertisements or packaging.  So you probably know how it works.  You scan the QR code on a QR reader app on your smart phone and you get the information that’s stored in the code, usually in the form of text on your phone.

Now, Navilens has improved on QR  technology, developing their own codes which come in four colors, not just black and white.  The additional colors allow them to store additional information.  Navilens has also developed their own Navilens reader that is more user friendly for people with vision impairment or blindness in ways that we’ll explain in this episode.  And people can posts their Navilens codes anywhere on the wall, in any public space or office building or home.  By pointing your phone’s camera, or even getting fairly close to pointing your camera.  It’s amazing, by the way, how you don’t really have to be looking at the code in order to read it.  It’ll then pick up the code.

And it’ll tell you two things.  The information that’s embedded in this code plus the distance and directionally from you to that code with Navilens’ code reader speaking the relevant information directly into your ear buds.  It’s discrete, it’s elegant, it’s flexible, and it’s inexpensive.

I started the conversation by asking Javier Pita how Navilens differs from GPS, for example.

Javier Pita

GPS is an American invention.  It’s a revolutionary invention.  But the problem is that the GPS is not accurate enough for people with visual impairments.  For example, the people that can see use the in order to locate a bus stop .  But the GPS has an error around 15-20-30-40 feet in the best conditions.  Now, for example, if you’re sitting with very big skyscrapers that block the signal of the GPS.

Something that is so super powerful, the problem is the last few yards, the last few meters 06:32 to locate exactly where is the 06:35  that you want to reach.  For example, in this case, the bus stop.  So, the thing is that these last few meters, these last few yards, is the challenge of the visually impaired people have when they want to locate a new bus stop, when they want to locate and then transfer the Metro, and this is all of those.  We cannot use GPS indoors, and in that space we need something that helps the visually impaired people to know exactly where they are and what are they seeing with the technology.  That is the problem that we tried to solve with the Navilens technology.

Dr. Cal Roberts

At Lighthouse Guild we love big ideas.  And the big idea here is the marrying of location finding with information.

Javier Pita

Yes.

Dr. Cal Roberts

So, it’s not just where you are.  It’s what you’re seeing and how much information can you get about what you’re seeing.

Javier Pita

This is a very interesting thought.  Because the best technology that combines something that is classic low technology, like you said, and there’s something that’s high technology.  The signage that was invented by the Romans 2000 years ago at present in everywhere.  So, the thing is, if you see a signage of a coffee shop or you’re seeing signage with the daily menu of the special offer or any kind of information, the thing that we’re trying to do is that signage became visible for the visually impaired in the same way that the sighted people use the signage.

The thing is, if you’re inside, you pull a Navilens code near or in the signage itself, you can store any information that you want linked to that signage.  The problem in the past is how to locate where exactly is the signage of that piece of information easily 08:44  or the signage is or the code is.

This is a problem, for  example, with the QR codes.  When QR codes can store a lot of information, but the problem is how to locate the QR codes.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Exactly.  So, I want to know where the bus stop is, but I also want to know which bus is coming.

Javier Pita

Yes.  And the thing is, the vision that we have is that something that is as simple as to print something and to putting them in a current element like a bus stop.  For example, I have here the code that we have put in some bus stops with MTA and 23rd street.  And the thing is, this is a piece of paper printed on the bus stop, doesn’t only help us to locate where exactly is the bus stop, help us as you are telling when this bus is coming.

In fact, we can do a demonstration for you in real time.  If I open Navilens bus stop in the 23rd street, we are going to hear this information.

Bus stop east, 23 street Broadway.  Next arrival:  The next M23S BS Bus to Chelsea Pierce 12AB is seven minutes away and 16 minutes.

Javier Pita

In this bus stop, one bus is approaching in real time.  And we are obtaining this information using only a code that is printed and placed in one particular location.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Fascinating.  Describe the Navilens system.

Javier Pita

The Navilens is like a revolution of the QR code, but much better.  I don’t know if you know that the QR codes was invented 26 years ago.  26.

Dr. Cal Roberts

1994 by Toyota.

Javier Pita

You do know perfectly well!  This is something that people don’t know.  So, the thing is, the QR code was invented in the last century, and it’s not possible to read a QR code from a long distance.  You need to know exactly where the QR code is in order to read it.  So, we decided, okay, why can’t we improve this?  And we say, okay, we’re in Spain, Europe 11:09  and say, why don’t we find new code?  Okay, let’s do it.

And after five years of research, from 2012 – 2017, we achieved a new kind of code that is the Navilens code.  But instead of using black and white, we use colors.  Four colors.  And with a tiny bigger than the QR code.  Doing that, this code can be read, depending on the size.  For example, if you put the code in a standard piece of paper you can read the code between 40 and 60 feet far away. That is impressive.

This was the original Navilens technology.  Five years of intense work.  It’s impressive, because as you said, the user doesn’t need to focus to the code.  In fact, the Navilens code can be read at a 160 degree angle.  160 degree angle means that we can move the code 80 degrees on one side and 80 degrees on the other side.  And this code that you are seeing right now that I am showing to the camera can be 12:21 .

Dr. Cal Roberts

He’s holding a piece of paper with a Navilens code printed on it.  But, instead of holding it face on to the camera, he’s holding it slanted toward the camera at about an 80 degree angle.

Javier Pita

12:34 because this code wants to assign the 12:39 in the talents of the visual impairment.

Ed Plumacher

If that image appears, that 10 inch by 10 inch tag appears anywhere in the field of view of that camera, all of a sudden within milliseconds, that information is there.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Ed Plumacher is an adaptive technology specialist at Lighthouse Guild.  Ed’s visually impaired due to retinitis pigmentosa and nystagmus.

Ed Plumacher

I found the app to be very intuitive.  User-friendly.

Dr. Cal Roberts

We’ve posted Navilens codes all over Lighthouse Guild’s offices in New York City.  And Ed has been testing them out for us.

Ed Plumacher

We’re an adaptive technology center.  So I can walk down the hallway and it’s telling me when I’ve arrived at this department.  The door is right in front of me.  Or the ladies room and the mens room is down the hall.  And it gives me the distance to that sign.  It really gives me that autonomy that I really crave.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Ed’s a really fascinating guy.  A technologist who designed and built the systems that allow us major league sports fans to see virtual replaces and in-game digital analyses on our screens.

Back to back home runs by Gardner and Ford.  Back to back…

He has a high bar when it comes to evaluating a technology and the values behind the technology.  Does the tech use readily available software or hardware in a smart way?  Does it deliver immediate benefit?  Is it, as he would say, autonomous to the field of play?

Ed Plumacher

I’ve worked with some way-finding technology where they would come in and put these Bluetooth beacons up.  And they’re good.  But there’s a lot of infrastructure involved.  And there’s a lot of maintenance in that.  And I’m looking at this technology which is either a printed piece of paper, or printed vinyl or printed sign.  And you can just slap it up and it’s there and that information is available.  So that’s the beauty of this technology, is the information is customizable.  You can get as detailed as you want to.  You can create this on a computer monitor and if you turn Navilens on and aimed it at the computer screen, it’s going to read that code.  And when I see this it kind of fits into my wheelhouse.  I was like, this is great tech.  I love this.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Javier Pita is making advances on the basic Navilens technology, including a 360 degree technology that registers and retains the user’s location vis-a-vis a code.  In case the user loses contact with the code, the system can still tell where the user is and guide them to their destination.

He also developed, in addition to the Navilens app, an app called Navilens Go.  I asked him to describe the difference.

Javier Pita

We developed the Navilens app with a lot of customization for the visually impaired.  For example, haptic answers when they are reading a code.  A location with sounds – where exactly is the code.  We began to offer this in public transportation because for apps and the users that was in our team, it’s super important to make public transportation more accessible.  And our first implementation was in Barcelona in the Barcelona Transport Authority.

So, the technology, they said okay, this is incredible.  This is like a 16:18 for the improved accessibility of our bus stop, our train station, our service in general.  And, additionally, 16:28 for sighted people.  And Barcelona city, as this is a very touristy place, this is super interesting because the same code answers the information in a lot of languages, depending on the language of the user.

When we heard about that, we said okay, why don’t we extend the use of the code beyond the original use case, and we created Navilens Go.  Navilens Go is like a more visual experience.  We have it and a new feature that is terrific is an augmented realty 17:07  indoors.  And the codes are going to inform you with a 17:10  in the augmented reality experience what is your destination.  In the past it was not possible to offer this type of experience for Navilens.

Navilens is more focused on delivering an experience of visual 17:26  and accessible signage.  And Navilens Go is like an experimentation about new technology we have 17:32 .

Dr. Cal Roberts

Let’s say I’m in a department store and I want to find shirts.  For me, the hardest thing is knowing which aisle do I go down and where do I turn and I’m a sighted person.  Now, to me, what this says is now I can ask it to help me find the shirts and it’ll tell me to go down this aisle and turn right and then go down this aisle and turn left.

Javier Pita

Yes.  Not only that, for me, I am the tester.  When I go to the supermarket in order to locate something in that very big supermarket, it’s impossible to locate things, and I can see as well.  So, the thing is, the assistant will guide you with incredible precision to your decided destination in order to help you and 18:23 .

Dr. Cal Roberts

Fascinating.  I love it.

Javier Pita

We are very proud of 18:27 .  For example, with the launch that we did three weeks ago with Kellogg’s – are you familiar with this?

Dr. Cal Roberts

Cocoa Puffs.  Sure.  I ate them since I was a little boy.  Of course!

Javier Pita

Okay, so this is official Kellogg’s Cocoa Puffs, and what do you see in here?

Dr. Cal Roberts

Yes, I see a Navilens code on the Kellogg’s Cocoa Puffs.  Oh my gosh, it’s fabulous.

Javier Pita

Yes.  The thing is, imagine, in the same way that the Kellogg’s Cocoa Puffs has the bar code here, why don’t we make more accessible this packaging?  Imagine all the information this package has.  About nutrition, allergies.  But the thing is, something that you want to really improve the daily life of the community, you need to make not only powerful and simple, you need to make it sustainable and scale easily.

In this case, in the example of the supermarket, in the same way that the Kellogg’s Cocoa Puffs introduced all this graphical information, why don’t add in the Navilens code, making this food package more accessible at the same time?

In the future, our vision, imagine not only to guide inside the super market or the department store, and the final articles have the code on them to make more accessible the items 19:56 .  It’s a 19:56 .  It’s not going to be easy, but the thing is, why not?

Dr. Cal Roberts

With the technology as flexible, responsive and inexpensive as Navilens, why not indeed?  In 2019 the MTA tested Navilens along with a host of other solutions in a three month accessibility lab and the J Street Metro Tech Subway Station in Brooklyn, New York.  Mira Philipson, from the MTA, tells us what the study found.

Mira Philipson

Navilens did get the most positive feedback.  Also, I think the ease of use aspect – like you download the app, and you can just use it.

Dr. Cal Roberts

And Navilens is one of the technologies that the Transit Tech Lab, a public-private partnership, has deployed as part of its ongoing year-long accessibility challenge on an entire bus line, the M23.

So, what happens next?

Mira Philipson

When you think about it, it makes a lot more sense, is we learn from this, and now the next step is actually more testing, because, to take a three month pilot, obviously that’s a little silly to say, take a three month pilot and now we’re going to roll out Navilens across the system.  The MTA is aware of not just what the app is but how incredible feedback has been.  When I was saying continued testing, this year-long pilot is going to be huge and the feedback and data that we get from this year’s pilot will help us to maintain that.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Is it likely that the MTA will roll out Navilens more broadly?

Mira Philipson

Even if, not this year, next year we might not have the funding, it’ll remain at the top of mind that this is something that we want to circle back on and come back to in the future when there is more funding to really be had.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Gian Pedulla explains how his work with the DOE was connected to his role on the advisory committee for transit accessibility.

Gian Pedulla

If our kids can’t leave the house safely and get from A to B, what kind of meaningful adult experience are they going to have?

Dr. Cal Roberts

It was actually an accessibility pilot program from 2017 that got him passionate about transit accessibility issues.  The program allowed him to book rides on demand from New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Gian Pedulla

That just opened up my eyes.  It gave me such access.  It allowed me and enabled me to live my life with the same autonomy and the same dignity as every other citizen in this city.  I just became really passionate about modernizing para-transit and the need for it to evolve.  Again, accessibility needs to be built into products, websites, software from the ground up.  Because it’ll just lead to a better product overall.

Dr. Cal Roberts

The technological virtues that Ed Plumacher laid about Navilens speak volumes for how elegant it is.  It’s inexpensive, flexible, easy to use, it requires very little learning on the part of the user and fits seamlessly into a user’s life.  It adds value for non-sighted users and for sighted users.  And it can easily be used in any home or business.  Like I mentioned, we put them up all over Lighthouse Guild’s offices.

That said, when it comes to public transit, it will take the work of the city to implement.  It will truly take a village.  I wonder if there’s a case study we can learn from?

Ed Plumacher

I’m really hoping that – this is part of the transportation system set up in Barcelona, Spain, so I’m really hoping that when COVID’s over maybe Dr. Cal will send me over to Spain to check it out.

Dr. Cal Roberts

Ummm….we’ll check the budget.

(laughter)

Did this episode spark ideas for you?  Let us know at podcasts@lighthouseguild.org.  And if you like this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.  I’m Dr. Cal Roberts.  On Tech & Vision is produced by Lighthouse Guild.  For more information visit www.lighthouseguild.org.  On Tech & Vision with Dr. Cal Roberts is produced at Lighthouse Guild by my colleagues, Jaine Schmidt and AnneMarie O’Hearn.  My thanks to Podfly for their production support.