words Anna Bates
Pathfinder, an indoor “sat-nav” system, is going to be trialled at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Designed by David Sweeney, research associate at the Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre, Pathfinder is the first time the system (part of a 12-month research programme) will be used in the public domain.
The way-finding system will guide visitors through a crowded ceramics exhibition using hand-held radio-frequency identification (RFID) “torches” and “tags” attached to exhibits. By shining the torch at the tags visitors can get information about the exhibits. By the time the system goes live, Sweeney thinks mobiles will contain RFID chips, eliminating the need for the torch.
The technology isn’t particularly groundbreaking – RFID chips are commonly used in security passes and swipe-cards like Transport for London’s Oyster system. Sweeney’s interest is in the potential of existing technology, and using our increasingly wireless environments “and products in our pockets to be our gateway to information that describes spaces we are in”. “The drive is to get the world described,” he says, creating a descriptive, global positioning system (GPS) for the indoor environment (currently out of bounds for GPS satellites).
Pathfinder was initially designed for the visually impaired (unlikely visitors to the V&A’s ceramics exhibition). But rather than design a tool for one group of people which instantly makes it exclusive, Sweeney wanted to develop way-finding systems “that help anyone who wants to find their way” – increasing the likelihood of them becoming part of everyday life.
Alongside the RFID torch, two other prototypes were devised: A talking tactile map and a smart camera. The map is an extremely simple 3D layout of a space; moving your hand over the map activates it to tell you what is there, while a silver ball informs you where you are. The system is about to go live at the Vassall Centre in Bristol – a disability-friendly conference centre, which until now has appalling way-finding systems. “But you can’t carry it under your arm,” says Sweeney, so he designed the more mobile Smart Camera prototype – a software package that allows the phone’s camera to “read” and “decode” cryptic patterns containing digital information. Wherever there is a code, a stream of information will be delivered to you.
But underneath each prototype is the same principle – “I want to standardise information,” says Sweeney, “using information online to describe our space.” Sweeney wants to develop an online community, currently dubbed “Wikinav” – where people share experiences and descriptions of a place that can be delivered via the three prototypes.
There are problems to overcome – more intelligent phones are increasingly touch-screen, making them problematic for the visually impaired, and technology outdates so quickly. But by standardising information, Sweeney hopes to put roots in place. Already, Transport for London has expressed interest – a sure sign that the way we navigate public space is about to change. The project is a collaboration between the Audi Design Foundation and Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre.
Smart Camera is a software package that allows the mobile phone’s camera to “read” and “decode” cryptic patterns containing digital information
Tactile Map, a 3D layout of a space – moving your hand over the map activates it to tell you what is there