July 2, 2012
BOSTON — Everyone knows what happens once you’re inside a taxi. You might gaze out the window, check your phone or watch what’s on the little television screen. Every now and then, you lean over to take a peek at the meter to get an idea of what the tally is.
Now think about that taxi ride experience as a blind passenger.
In God we trust; all others pay fare
Jim Denham described the problem: “Finding a cab that knows the route, trusting a cab driver ... You have to really trust them because you can’t read that meter."
Denham is blind. He is also the director of assistive technology at the Perkins School for the Blind. He’s got all sorts of smartphone apps and gadgets that help him get around. But even with all those apps and gadgets, he still needs to rely entirely on the cab driver to know what his fare is.
“Making sure that they are taking you the same route that you think you should take, that they’re not going to drive around the block just to run up their meter a bit — it’s just something to be cautious about," Denham said.
The bigger benefit is that it’s a step closer to independence. Even something as simple as knowing your fare is empowering. And soon, in the City of Boston, blind passengers will get some help. Thanks to new technology, that television screen in the back of the cab will soon be talking to the visually impaired.
The technological solution
“We said let’s take the existing technology and see if we can extend it and come up with a solution for the visually impaired," said Jesse Davis, CEO of Creative Mobile Technologies, a New York–based company that makes those TVs that are in the backseats of taxis in major cities all over the country.
“When you hear the frustration out of the community about something as simple as going to the ATM or how intimidating it can be if you are in a cab to make sure that you really are paying the proper amount — I mean, it’s an extremely unnerving position to be in," said Davis.
In collaboration with advocacy group Lighthouse International, CMT devised a way to turn those televisions into touch screens with audio capability for the blind. Here’s how it works: Lighthouse International issues cards that look like credit cards, with a magnetic strip. Inside the cab, the passenger swipes the card through the credit card slot. That activates the TV screen, turning it into a touch screen, and the audio prompt greets the passenger and tells the rider how to operate the device.
I asked Denham to go for a ride to test out this new technology.
The system in action
Once we step inside the cab, Denham feels around and immediately finds the credit card machine. He swipes the card through, and the TV screen suddenly greets us with a wobbly automated voice: “Welcome. You’ve entered Cab B0321.” On the screen, four large squares replace the weather forecast and stock market figures. The voice prompt instructs us on how to control volume settings by tapping certain sections of the screen.
So far, Denham is pleased.
“I like how they’re using the corner of the screen to quickly identify things. And it makes it easy to find the different pieces of information, but the speech is a little difficult to understand. They could use a better speech synthesizer. But still, it’s not horrible. It’s nice getting the fare — it’s nice to be able to quickly identify that," Denham says.
I think the automated voice sounds British, but Denham disagrees, contending, "I don’t know if that’s a British voice. I think that’s just one of the synthesizers that’s out there."
While Denham and I politely avoid a debate over the dialect of the software, he feels his way around the screen.
“I’m surprised there’s not a headphone jack. But it’s really nice that when I swiped the card, it immediately started talking. That’s a really nice feature. I mean just to know, ‘Hey, the system is working,’" says Denham.
The screen is connected to the meter so as our ride continues, the voice states the fare increases. When we pull into the parking lot at Perkins, it tells us how much we owe and the prompt allows Denham to decide how much he wants to tip and guides us through the payment process.
CMT’s software gets an overall thumbs-up from Denham: “That was some neat technology. I think it is a great thing. It fosters independence. Minor improvements could be made; I think the speech could be a little clearer. But I think it’s a great system, and I’m really happy that it’s going into more cabs.”
With the technology down, the logistics
But the next part is pretty tricky: how to distribute all those cards out to the blind community. This is something Kim Charlson, first vice president of the American Council of the Blind, is concerned about.
“It is a challenge to reach people blind or visually impaired because they don’t use the traditional newspapers and mail and things like that," said Charlson. At her office inside the Talking Book Library at Perkins, her guide dog German Shepherd Dolly rests at her feet, under her desk.
“We have to use alternative ways to communicate — through agencies and organizations of the blind, including information in newsletters, audio, Braille, large print so that we can get the word out to people," Charlson said.
The technology is already up and running in New York City and San Francisco. Currently there are 1200 cabs in the city with CMT technology. It will be a few months before it’s launched full-scale in Boston: City officials here want to work out the kinks. When they do, it’ll be a major step toward greater independence for the blind community and a life with fewer boundaries.