Philly and SEPTA issue tech challenge to help people with disabilities navigate transit

A SEPTA bus driver navigates through SEPTA’s Midvale bus depot

A SEPTA bus driver navigates through SEPTA’s Midvale bus depot in this file photo taken on May 21, 2020 (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

SEPTA and the city of Philadelphia are calling for ideas on new ways to use technology to make it easier for people with disabilities to use mass transit.

The challenge is called “Augmenting Transit with Augmented Reality.”

“It is essentially a hack-a-thon … where we are issuing a call for the use of Augmented Reality, or AR, to help improve accessibility to public transit for people with disabilities,” said Lex Powers, Strategic Planning Manager at SEPTA.

Augmented reality uses computer-generated images to enhance what we see in real life. A common example is when football broadcasters virtually draw on the field to show plays.

Powers said SEPTA and the city are looking for innovators to come up with similar ideas, using things like smartphones and smart glasses, to help people with disabilities be more comfortable using public transit.

“This effort was borne out of feedback we’ve received over the years,” Power said. “People with disabilities are a key group and we are focused on making the system more accessible and this is just another way to do that.”

The challenge has three phases: First, applications are due by Aug. 2. Then, a panel of judges will choose up to 12 semi-finalists to prevent their ideas during a virtual pitch session. Up to six teams will move on to the final round and receive small grants to make prototypes. The winning teams, chosen from the group of finalists, will get more than $35,000 in cash prizes and the chance to pilot their ideas.

In the meantime, the city is asking riders with disabilities to take an online survey and share their experiences using mass transit. The survey deadline is July 17, and the results will help inspire ideas for the challenge.

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