Research from tech-savvy students at Ryerson University is helping disabled passengers navigate a subway line halfway around the world.
Their work, part of a push by the Toronto campus to tap student know-how to create new digital products, is allowing riders on one line of the Paris Metro to use their smartphones to get directions, plan their trip and ask for assistance from transit staff. Closer to home, the group is hoping to test the student-developed application on the GO train's Lakeshore and Richmond Hill lines this fall.
"This is just one of 26 projects that are now under development, most with plans to commercialize," said Hossein Rahnama, a Ryerson post-graduate student and leader of the mobile phone project, a team that includes four undergraduate and three graduate computer-science students.
Mr. Rahnama said his group has spoken with TTC officials and, although the application would work on buses and streetcars, it could not run on the subway's existing communications platform. Airports also would be an ideal use for the application, he said.
The new application is one of the first products to be launched from the school's Digital Media Zone, a project that began this spring and brings together students from various fields of study to develop their ideas under the guidance of staff and business advisers.
In the case of the new transit application, Mr. Rahnama got involved in the venture as a graduate student in partnership with a group of European researchers. Ryerson became the only North American school involved in the initiative because of his work.
The new "mobile transit companion," is a free download available to all transit users, but with features tailored specifically to users with special needs. Depending on user preferences, it can receive commands through simple gestures on a touch screen or voice commends and can respond with written or verbal messages. It also can use vibrations to send alerts, such as when a visually impaired user is nearing their stop. There also is an option that allows users to let transit staff or family track their location.
At a special demonstration Tuesday at Ryerson's Digital Media Zone - a sparse office space jammed with computer equipment overlooking Dundas Square - Mala Naraine used her index finger to trace a lower-case "h" on a mobile phone screen. A voice message tells her that assistance is coming and asks her to remain in her current location. Another sweep of her finger and the application, which plots the user's location in real time, gives her directions to the nearest elevator.
Having the application available for the TTC "would be like a dream come true," said Ms. Naraine, a Ryerson post-doctoral student who has limited vision and relies on public transit.