How the Physical Web will revolutionize visual accessibility

Mobile phone receives screen information from a beacon attached to a TransitScreen

Transportation has changed more in the last 10 years than the previous century. Our mission at TransitScreen is to make information about these proliferating public and private transportation choices accessible to everyone – janitor to CEO, young to old, regardless of what language they speak – to save time and money, and increase the sustainability of our cities. We have found that public information displays have a big impact on transportation choices.

But what can be done for people who can’t read public information screens? Over 1.3 million Americans are legally blind, and have difficulty reading screens (and using many mobile applications). And over 100,000 Americans are totally blind, and depend on assistive technology like screen readers (which read text out loud) to interact with computers.

Since TransitScreen uses modern web technology to power our screens, TransitScreen displays are accessible using screen readers. Every modern smartphone has a screen reader, which makes them a very powerful universal device for the blind. The challenge is how to get the information from a screen to a personal mobile device.

There’s finally a solution to this problem, and it will be a game changer for visual accessibility. It’s a new technology based on beacons, called the Physical Web. Here’s how it works.

In the near future, each TransitScreen display near you will have a tiny beacon attached to it. The beacon transmits a signal up to 70 meters (200 feet) to your phone, which is a link to our cloud website. On your phone, you simply tap the “TransitScreen” beacon, which loads the screen on your phone so you can interact with it. If you’re blind, you can use a screen reader. If you have low vision, you can zoom in. Even if you don’t have a visual impairment, but just happen to be sitting somewhere the screen isn’t visible, you can read it just the same!

Physical Web technology isn’t limited to transportation information and directions like TransitScreen currently provides. The digital signage industry is growing 20% yearly, and includes information screens like electronic building directories, digital calendars and bulletin boards, on-street advertising like LinkNYC, and digital menu boards at restaurants. (Accessibility advocate Erich Manser has noted that, as menus become digital screens, restaurant ordering is becoming increasingly difficult for people with low vision.)

All of these digital screens will become accessible — and interactive — as they become part of the Physical Web, and we intend to lead the way. And why limit the conversation to digital screens? As beacons get cheaper, all signs – including building addresses, retail signs, instructions, rules and advice – will become part of the Physical Web, and will be accessible to blind and low vision users.

There are some roadblocks on the way to total Physical Web accessibility. The success of the Physical Web depends on the two companies that control the smartphone market – Google and Apple – and how they allow smartphone users to access Physical Web beacons. In testing with a user group facilitated by our client, the City of Cambridge, MA and the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities, we’ve found that the unpredictable way both Android and iPhone devices display beacons creates usability problems, especially for blind users. This is one message I’ll be bringing to the Smart Cities panel at the upcoming M-Enabling Summit in Washington, DC.

At the same time, we need to look beyond the technology’s current state to its future potential. Using the Physical Web to solve accessibility problems is a great example of a powerful trend called universal design: designing products that give a first-class experience to everyone, including people with disabilities. When we have the opportunity like this, to use a new technology to make things universally better for everyone while solving big problems for people with disabilities, we need to find a way to make it happen. So if you’re interested in talking accessibility, please drop us a line.

— Matt Caywood, CEO, TransitScreen