Have you ever watched in amazement as a visually impaired person nimbly maneuvers their way through a crowded subway station? Well, some thoughtful innovations are being developed to enable people with low vision to navigate the world with greater ease. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to the founder and CEO of Waymap, Tom Pey, about his start-up company’s breakthrough navigation technology. We discuss his company’s product, look at some of the challenges that people with disabilities face, and touch upon the promise of autonomous vehicles for those without sight.
00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
00:22 Tom Pey – So what this does is this hands back, and that’s why the phone itself becomes the instrument that is the accurate navigation device, because in your phone you now have the freedom to explore.
00:37 Narrator – Have you ever watched in amazement as a visually impaired person nimbly maneuvers their way through a crowded subway station? Well, some thoughtful innovations are being developed to enable people with low vision to navigate the world with greater ease. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to the founder and CEO of Waymap, Tom Pey, about his start-up company’s breakthrough navigation technology. We discuss his company’s product, look at some of the challenges that people with disabilities face, and touch upon the promise of autonomous vehicles for those without sight.
01:33 Alex Wise – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Tom Pey. He is the CEO. Of Waymap. Tom, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
01:41 Tom Pey – Thank you for having me.
01:43 Alex Wise – So why don’t you tell us a little bit about the journey that you and your colleagues have had with Waymap, what the mission of the organization is and what problems you’re trying to solve with it?
01:55 Tom Pey – Basically we started out trying to solve a very simple problem and that was the seven blind young people in London. Said the most important thing to them to help them to change their lives for the better was to be able to get around London Underground like everyone else, and the reason for that was that they were young. They, uh, a couple of them had just been out on a date with a with a boyfriend or girlfriend and they had been taken around by these adults, strangers, sighted guides to help them to navigate the underground and it wasn’t very cool, so they thought, hey, you know, an app could stop, they could solve this for us. I had done some research on it previously, so I put my hand up and said look I’d solved that problem for you. You know, we applied to google.org and we got $1,000,000 grant and they told us to go out and change the world for blind people. And we carried out trials across the world with literally thousands of blind people asking them how we could solve their mobility problems. How could we help them to get around better, and as a result we wrote the world for standard for audio-based navigation for people who are blind or low vision that’s currently an American standard as well. And we’ve also written standard for pig with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And from that we developed our app through Waymap and we’re currently rolling it out in Washington DC.
03:30 Alex Wise – And so will it be a layer ultimately on Google Maps? Like, I’m thinking if I put in walking directions for me from point A to point B, how might it be different with the Waymap layer, let’s say?
03:45 Tom Pey – The difference is that first of all, it would be more accurate than Google Maps because it doesn’t rely solely on GPS. In fact, it doesn’t rely on signals at all if they’re not there. The second thing is that it works outdoors and indoors, and Google Maps currently doesn’t work indoors because it’s got it. It works off GP. And the other thing is that our app can take you. It can integrate all of your transport journeys, both indoors, outdoors, underground, Overground, and facilitate your getting to your office, in fact even to your desk.
04:26 Alex Wise – So how does it work if it’s not with GPS? Explain the technology if you can.
04:31 Tom Pey – So basically we, uh, we have a an algorithm that turns your phone into a into a very accurate navigation device. We do that by using the sensors on the phone and using a system of Bayesian statistical algorithm to work out the positioning of where you are. Once we know where you are, we are able to accurately count your steps and the velocity at which you’re walking. And we use that against a plot that against the known map, so in a map of the indoor or outdoor area. And because it’s probabilistic, there are very minute errors in every calculation, right? So in every for every step, we assign 5000 possible positions to for you might be, and we use this algorithm to pick the one that’s most accurate and because it would be very minute, uh, errors in that called drift. Every now and again will zero out those errors by using a principle of map matching, which means that we operate to up to 1 meter accuracy and 10 degree heading accuracy. It is probably the most advanced indoor and outdoor navigation system in the world. And the thing is also it works for people with disabilities as well as for people who don’t have disabilities.
06:09 Alex Wise – And where are you in terms of your company arc? Is it in beta right now or can people just access Waymap as an app right now on the Apple App Store, let’s say?
06:20 Tom Pey – As we speak right now, we’re in beta, but if you come back and we speak again towards the end of the year, we were very out there working in Washington DC so at the moment we are working very hard to integrate the bus and rail and paratransit systems of the OR in the Washington Metropolitan area, which is the, you know, the tri-state area of Washington. And after that, then we would be running it out in other cities.
06:50 Alex Wise – So, Tom, are there some other applications that you foresee for Waymap beyond what you’ve just described in terms of transportation needs for visually impaired people and those with intellectual disabilities?
07:03 Tom Pey – Yes and preventing features and for instance older adults who may have maybe anxiety in in going outdoors, but also it may be some short-term memory difficulty. But yes is the answer. So our next step would be then to bring the great outdoors indoor. Say we will be working with museums, with public buildings, with public spaces which you know, stadium, sports stadiums and for instance in in a museum environment, because we know where you are to within 1 meter and we know who you’re facing within 10 degrees. These you can plot the like you would plot, say, a trip around a big museum like the Smithsonian. Then you want to see 17 some exhibits, and then you want to go for a coffee to meet your friend. Well, you can plot the 17 exhibits in and when you’re facing them, we can download the API. Which would tell you what it is and give you a bit of a history about it. If you think, oh God, I really didn’t want to look at that, that’s boring. And you turn away it decides that you’ve finished and that you can walk on to your next one. So it’s and it’s similarly in retail. We will know if you’re in the coffee aisle or in the aisle where all the beer is and we will also be able to help you to choose your favorite kind of beer. It will be ready to come say next year towards the middle to end next year.
08:43 Alex Wise – So you could work with a retailer let’s and they could say, alright, well the Budweiser’s here and the Sam Adams is here and we’re going to point visually impaired customers to the correct beer so they don’t have to get any assistance from anybody in the shop?
09:02 Tom Pey – Basically we can get you to the we can get you to within 1 meter of your favorite beer and then you just we would just simply allow you to use your camera on your phone and just say there’s your John Adams beer and said great I’ll have. My wife, for instance, one of that horrible, one of the things she hates going to supermarket for two things that you know she’s not vision impaired or disabled and then so what you can do if you’re sighted and maybe it’s your first time into the supermarket or you just want to rush in and rush out, you just simply say I want to get some bread and I want to get some marmalade or something. And you just push that in and we get you to two places and it will allow you again. You select a brand that you want.
09:52 (Music break)
10:27 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Tom Pey. He is the CEO of Waymap. So you’re a very advanced computer user, and I imagine you’ve been working with computers for many years. Maybe you can kind of give listeners an idea of some of the evolution, some of the big hurdles that have been accomplished in the last couple of decades to make the world more accessible for the visually impaired in terms of technology. What are some of the things that are near and dear to your heart in terms of technological breakthroughs?
11:03 Tom Pey – I mean, I could do none of this without a very simple program called Jaws. Well, it’s not a simple program, but it’s a program, a screen reader called Jaws. And it was designed by a person who had side problems and he wanted to be able to use a computer that that means that I can access all of the data in my computer. Anything that’s on the screen, my screen reader would read it to me. So I can do almost anything that I want to do on a computer. The only limitations is my ability to come to be able to navigate my way. The next thing was the iPhone. When it came out, it just revolutionized what blind people could do with.
11:51 Alex Wise – Like Siri and voice command?
11:54 Tom Pey – Yeah, absolutely. You know, I mean it was counter intuitive, but at the time when they were designing the iPhone, Steve Jobs said, look, we need to design this so it can be used by blind people, because if blind people can use it, everyone will enjoy it, right? And so they brought that approach to doing the iPhone it was countering. You did that a blind person would be able to touch a screen and operated like a sighted person. But it did, and it really opened the world up to blind people ’cause now we could do outdoor navigation that we couldn’t really do before. As well as having access to on the goal, communications and so on. Yeah, so it does with the very the big things and then of course with the Americans with Disabilities Act are in the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act. The changes to the infrastructure, building infrastructure and the transport infrastructure to facilitate access for everybody may also have made a very big difference.
13:01 Alex Wise – And when you think of the global visually impaired population, I think it’s close, it’s, it’s nearing the population in the United States, it’s almost 300 million I believe, and those are people with impairments. I think completely blind is more like 40 something. Million for companies that didn’t think this through early on, this is actually a big breakthrough for them as well to be able to cater to a fairly significant customer base and I can imagine it could make their operations smoother when they can, you know, just explaining what you were talking about with a shopping in a store. Somebody looking for a beer or if they can get that on their own, as opposed to trying to get a shopkeeper to come select it for them, that helps on their labor front, let’s say.
13:47 Tom Pey – It does. 40% of the population of the United States has some form of disability and needs some form of additional assistance. OK, that’s the first thing. The second thing is that associated with disability is a is a reduction in the in the number of times that people go out alone. And increase in the number of times when people rely on family, friends and others to bring them out. So in other words a loss of disability, and arising from that is the diminution in one’s self esteem. And from that then arrives a lot of health problems that then have to be picked up in the economy. So it’s huge just being able to get out and as I said when I started to come to think about this as a possible opportunity of business. The problem I really wanted to solve wasn’t about freedom of movement. It was the freedom to explore. Because the thing that I lost was not freedom of movement because that was a right. Did somebody stick a white cane or a guide dog of my heart and said there you go, top right? It was my confidence, my myself, myself. Loss of freedom to explore the world because of the other difficulties that there weren’t being able to get around, like having to memorize routes or routes like having to, you know, memorize getting when the bus was coming, when the train was coming and so all of those things. That one could do naturally, I couldn’t do anymore. So what I what this does is this hands back and that’s why the form itself becomes the accurate navigation device. Because in your phone you now have the freedom to explore, and because you don’t have your, you don’t have to rely on your memory to do something. You have it, the memory is all in your phone and you can get on with the we’re just using your dog, your cane, your wheel chair, or whatever else you need to use.
15:57 Alex Wise – And it sounds like you were not born without sight. You lost sight later on in life?
16:03 Tom Pey – I lost sight at 39, so I was an extremely successful investment banker and I lost my sight and I have to say that it was cathartic and maybe because of my personality, I over dramatized it and I really went into a tailspin for four years and, uh, until a gentleman in in a charity came for me and told me that, you know, basically I was a waste of space and that what I needed to do was to it. You know, there were 150 blind children in disco who would never have had a job like mine, he would never, would never get to the countries that I went to read the food that I end, the money, get that end and so on and that I could carry on just being sorry for myself or I could do something to help them. And it took me 3 days to get over the insult, but I, you know, I went back and like and I actually shook hands with that man and he was the best friend ever. You know, there’s people who commit your life to change your life, and he cared. And ever since then, I’ve never looked back.
17:21 Alex Wise – It sounds like the technology can really kind of not only close the gap between the sighted and the visually impaired, but also those who are born without sight versus those who lose sight later on in life. Like yourself, I imagine somebody who becomes accustomed to the outside world and to technology at a very young age has an advantage over somebody who loses their sight in 39. Kind of like somebody who’s trying to learn a new language later in life if there’s more challenges.
17:52 Tom Pey – Yeah, they’re almost like 2 disabilities because my last charity that I ran was the Royal Society for Blind children and when you work with people who lost their sight in years. The big problem is not ability. The big problem is confidence and self-belief and motivation and actually just having the having the courage it encourages, uh, may be too complex. Of work but just having that oomph to live life on those terms and that can be quite scary unless you are supported through throughout your childhood and into your adolescent to be able to do that. And of course, because we learn 80% of what we learn, we learn through sight, you know, and bringing up a child is a difficult thing at the best. Sometimes, you know bringing up a blind child is really difficult, so unless that support is there for the family, then you get a different problem at the end. But nonetheless it ends up with the same outcome, which is reduction in going out, the onset of depression and anxiety and all of the things then that happened, it just happened for much longer because you were young.
19:20 (music break)
20:56 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Tom Pey. He’s the CEO of Waymap. So Tom, we were talking about some of the technologies that have made life easier for the visually impaired and those with intellectual disabilities. We’ve done a lot of pieces on autonomous vehicles in Sea Change Radio and it’s almost a throwaway line for some people when they talk about it’s going to also make life a little easier for those who can’t drive for themselves. And from a political standpoint, we hear about, well, it’s going to wipe out all the taxi drivers or the drivers, but looking at it from your perspective, I can’t help but think this is a very exciting development, the idea that this playing field of driving maybe someday level in terms of computers driving us all around. Maybe walk us through your thought process of you following it.
21:52 Tom Pey – I mean, oddly enough, when you talk to people who’ve lost their sight roughly around the time I have and you say, what do you miss most? And you say driving. Yeah, you know I can’t drive and I can’t wait to get it. It’ll be driven around in a self-driving car and you know, just to kind of sit there, I kind of there’s you have me singing in an autonomous Porsche or something, but you know, maybe something less we would do. The point is that yes, autonomous vehicles are going to help lots of people. And yes, they’re going to bring about huge economic changes in the world and they’re going to bring about great changes in in society. So autonomous vehicles are going to bring about an enormous amount of social change in the world and they’re going to certainly have disabled people to get out more and they are going to help many people to get out more and yes, it’s, you know, as I said, it’s going to be economic upheaval for a while or a big change, but at all this happens, but you know, you’ve got a great organization there called Waymo in in in San Francisco. And one of the things that we would love to do is to work with Waymo, for instance, because using something like a Waymap app. And if we come, if we then say order a a self-driving and autonomous taxi or cab or a an autonomous vehicle that it will actually pull up within 1 meter. If you’re on GPS it could be 10 meters away in the opposite side of the road. So it might as well be on the moon.
23:31 Alex Wise – Right, they haven’t really smoothed out that wrinkled by any means, so they need another technology to connect the visually impaired to making sure that they can jump into the right taxi.
23:42 Tom Pey – One of the things that we will develop and we will develop that wheat autonomous vehicle driver is that, you know because these vehicles are electronic or electric they don’t make as much noise as a as a fossil fuel part car. You know, we by having the interaction between my mobile phone and the car, we can maybe add an additional layer of safety.
24:13 (Music break)
24:57 Alex Wise – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Tom Pey. He is the CEO of Waymap. Do you see any environmental benefits with Waymap? What are some of the ways that you think it could improve the environment?
25:12 Tom Pey – More people will use public transport. So let me give you a really simple example. Many, many years ago, and just kind of dates me in my age, I want to see the chief executive of the tractor transport, Transport for London buses. So and I said to him, you know what, why don’t you put in talking buses, you know, so you can make announcements that when people have arrived at their bus stop and so on and he said. Well, he said you’ve come at the right time because we’re changing over our guidance system. So we we do it. We I I know it’s not going to cost a ton extra, it actually put ridership up 8%. But and everybody that in the industry that we’re working in, the industry was saying, Oh no, it’s going to drive everybody mad because you’re just going to have these, this constant talking actually put ridership up 8%.
26:08 Alex Wise – I’m not surprised by that when I lived in Japan, when I first moved there, I didn’t read any Japanese and I was always frustrated that I when they didn’t make an announcement or I couldn’t hear the announcement of the next station. But I think that’s come around. This was in the early 90s, so I’ve had that experience even though I’ve had sight I. was illiterate, basically.
26:31 Tom Pey – And the same for visitors to say Washington or San Francisco or whatever you know that don’t are not able to read signs for whatever reason, maybe because it’s in English but the other thing is that in our in our trials. 87% of blind people said they would be more likely to use public transport as a result of having an app such as Waymap help them to get around? That’s an increase of 20% just from that disability alone.
27:06 Alex Wise – That’s incredible.
27:07 Tom Pey – You know, and so you can imagine the the amount of people that are going to go. From private transport, be private hire vehicles or private cars into the public transport system. Massive saving in in in greenhouse gases.
27:24 Alex Wise – So can people participate in the beta program now, or is that you’re just hoping it’ll be out to the public at the end of the year?
27:32 Tom Pey – If you live in Washington DC, please contact us www.wamapnav.com. And let us know that you would like to participate in the beta trials.We’d love to have you. Other than that, we will ask your local authorities or your transport authorities to take on Waymap and we come to the city near you.
27:58 Alex Wise – Tom Pey, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
28:01 Tom Pey – Thank you for having me.
28:16 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Mose Allison, Stevie Wonder, and Taj Mahal. Check out our website at SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show. Or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others, and tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.