Commute Booster, an app designed by NYU experts, to guide visually impaired commuters through the challenges of New York City’s subway routes

Jul 28, 2023, 5:48 PM UTC
3 mins read
Commute Booster, an app designed by NYU experts, to guide visually impaired commuters through the challenges of New York City's subway routes
A Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) logo is displayed on the side of a subway train in Manhattan, New York on June 2, 2021. (Photo by Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Navigating the bustling and intricate subway system of New York City can be a daunting challenge for anyone, but for visually impaired individuals, it becomes an even more treacherous endeavor. However, hope is on the way, as researchers from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and Grossman School of Medicine have developed a solution: the Commute Booster app. This application leverages the power of smartphone cameras and advanced algorithms to assist visually impaired commuters in navigating the city’s vast subway network with ease and confidence.

The Commute Booster app targets the critical “middle mile” phase of a commuter’s journey, where they maneuver through turnstiles, crowded passageways, and complex terminals to stay on the correct route. By harnessing the capabilities of General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), a standardized public transportation route database, and optical character recognition (OCR) technology, the app can interpret pertinent signs and provide real-time guidance while disregarding non-essential distractions such as posters and advertisements.

The fusion of GTFS and OCR in Commute Booster delivers invaluable real-time feedback to users, ensuring they are aware of relevant navigation signs within their phone camera’s field of view during their transit,” according to an NYU press release.

In a recent study conducted at three major NYC subway stations — Jay Street-Metrotech, Dekalb Avenue, and Canal Street — the Commute Booster app achieved an impressive 97 percent success rate in accurately identifying the essential signs required to reach a predefined destination. The app showcased its ability to “read” signs from varying distances and angles, replicating the challenges that commuters typically encounter during their daily journeys.

Negotiating the ‘middle mile’ involves navigating a complex labyrinth of underground corridors, ticket booths, and subway platforms. For individuals who cannot rely on sight, this can be a perilous journey,” highlighted Dr. John-Ross Rizzo, an esteemed NYU professor and co-author of the research paper, known for his pioneering engineering work benefiting people with disabilities. “While existing GPS-enabled navigation apps may address the ‘first’ and ‘last’ miles, they often fall short in meeting the specific needs of blind or low-vision commuters. Commute Booster is purpose-built to bridge that gap.”

The next phase of development includes a human subject study to evaluate the app’s performance in real-world navigation scenarios. With successful results, the researchers aim to make Commute Booster available to the public “in the near term.” As a user-friendly smartphone app, Commute Booster harnesses the standard sensors of modern handsets. Nonetheless, it requires users to hold up their phone cameras while navigating the intricate routes of New York’s subway system. Despite this minor inconvenience, the benefits of the app make it more than worthwhile, and there is the potential for future integration with AR smart glasses as their popularity grows.

The creation of Commute Booster marks a significant milestone in enhancing accessibility and inclusivity for visually impaired individuals within urban transportation systems. As cities strive to become more inclusive and accommodating, technological advancements like Commute Booster represent crucial steps towards a more equitable future. With the promise of a safer and more independent commuting experience, visually impaired individuals can look forward to traversing the bustling streets of New York City with newfound confidence and freedom.

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