We designed an app that uses augmented reality to make public transit in Philadelphia more accessible for people with disabilities.
The design won 1st place and the Audience Choice award in the SEPTA for All: Augmenting Transit with Augmented Reality competition, which challenged teams of developers and designers to create augmented reality tools that will make transportation more accessible for people with disabilities in Philadelphia. The challenge was administered by SmartCityPHL, Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability (OTIS) and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA).
- Ila Kumar, a graduate student in MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing group
- Tarathorn Boonngamanong, a senior at Drexel University studying Game Design & Production and Virtual Reality & Immersive Media
We modified and enhanced the existing SEPTA app, using marker and location-based augmented reality technology to create an easy to use and accessible interface. New features provide riders with real-time notifications of upcoming stops based on their origin, destination, and current location. The notifications can be customized to be auditory, visual, and/or haptic to support individuals with a range of abilities.
Three accessibility issues motivated by our proposal:
- Transit vehicles provide inaccurate stop announcements or do not provide announcements.
- People with disabilities have difficulty accessing information about detours and changes to trips while enroute.
- People with disabilities report not having enough time to disembark the vehicle.
We think it’s important to highlight here that the augmented reality in the app is simple, and we believe that’s a big part of what makes it accessible and valuable for people. They can use it flexibly with any assistive technology, and can rely on the fact that it will always be accurate and up to date.
During the design process we prioritized learning from people with lived experience, conducting paid prototype-testing interviews with people with disabilities in Philadelphia.
Overall, we heard very positive feedback about the app. Below are some highlights.
- “ … Maybe I slept off during the time that I was meant to be taking my visuals, I’ll just get the alert and I’ll just be reminded of where to stop. It’s a beautiful concept.”
- “... Right now bus drivers have the option to turn off the speech in the bus and a lot of times they do. And sometimes if you ask a driver to let you know when such and such stop is, well you know, they’re driving. They can’t always be expected to remember everything. So I think this would be really good.”
- “ It sounds like this would be very helpful for someone who is totally blind or my buddies who have really poor vision…”
- “ … I would love to use it regularly whenever I am traveling.”
- “ This is far better than the previous Septa app…”
We also received some helpful actionable feedback, which led us to make the following modifications to our design.
- Allow people to create alerts before getting on the vehicle. This helps people differentiate between their bus and other buses that arrive at their stop and helps people know when to head over to the bus stop.
- Allow people to “favorite” trips in the app. This allows people to set up routes in advance, so they don’t have to worry about doing it while in transit. It also saves work for people who tend to take the same route again and again.
- Integrate the app with SEPTA Key. This saves people the effort of telling the app their starting stop and route - all users need to do is tap their key card when they enter the bus and then put in their destination stop to get alerts.
Now that we have been awarded 1st place in the SEPTA for All challenge, we are excited to pilot and iterate on our design with SEPTA and Philadelphia residents who have disabilities.
Stay tuned as we progress further. We hope that this project is able to help SEPTA become more accessible to those who need it most.