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Monday, December 4, 2023

The world's first technology to make train stations safer and more convenient - - Braille blocks and QR codes show the shortest route to your destination

Tokyo's subways are used by many passengers every day. The subway network covers the entire Tokyo metropolitan area, taking passengers to their destinations in the shortest possible time. In recent years, stations have been renovated to make them more convenient, but at the same time, the station structures have become more complex. In this context, Tokyo Metro and Progress Technologies, Inc. (PT), a company mainly engaged in system development, have teamed up in a creww collaboration to make stations more convenient and safer for the visually impaired. The project will be a world-first, groundbreaking project that will make stations more convenient and safer.

--Please tell us about how Tokyo Metro ACCELERATOR 2016 was organized.
Nakamura:In our mid-term management plan, it was stated that we would "explore external collaboration with venture companies and others through open innovation programs and other means. As a means to achieve this, we have started an accelerator program with Creww. Our department, "Corporate Value Creation Department," is a department whose mission is to think of new businesses, so the members of the department played a major role in making this happen.

Since this was our first attempt, we were indebted to Creww, and we could not have done it without their cooperation.

--Next, please tell us about your business and how you entered PT.
Konishi:Mainly, we provide support for system design and development for major manufacturing companies. We dispatch design development engineers and sell analysis software. The company was founded in 2005 and has been in business for 13 years this year. The number of employees has exceeded 400.

The story behind our entry is that one of our employees is acquainted with Creww, and we received an invitation to participate in their accelerator program (*An accelerator program is a program in which major companies offer startups a chance to collaborate with and invest in startups). I entered the program because we had been making equipment for the visually impaired on a trial basis, and I thought we might be able to work together on a program with Metro.

--Have you been seeking to develop services for the visually impaired since the beginning?
Konishi:From the beginning, we had narrowed our focus to some extent. The big vision was "Let's make Tokyo a safe and friendly city. We talked about this from the beginning, using videos of visually impaired people being guided through London stations as a model.

-- Did products for the visually impaired exist as part of PT's business?
Konishi:A prototype existed. When we initially proposed this to Metro, we hoped that we could use the "BLE beacon," a system that was aiming to become an international standard at the time. First, we conducted a hypothetical experiment at a mock-up station owned by Metro about seven times, and then conducted a demonstration at Tatsumi Station. In the process of conducting more experiments, we abandoned the BLE beacon in favor of a different form.

Nakamura:The mock station is an in-house facility called the Comprehensive Training Center, which is a complete reproduction of a platform. Braille blocks, etc., are drawn there, so it has always been a demonstration site.

-- You have been working on this since the early days, using a mock station of Metro's resources. Did the effort itself proceed speedily?
Konishi:The hypothetical experiment at the mock station was prepared smoothly and started immediately after we received the Tokyo Metro Accelerator Award in December 2016. There were two experiments: a hypothesis test and a demonstration experiment. The two experiments were a little different: the hypothetical experiment from March 2017 to the end of March this year was a series of trial and error. It may seem strange to praise someone from my own company, but Sakurada, who is sitting next to me, is a really talented engineer, and during the hypothetical experiment, we gradually cut out the useless things and made it into something usable. The original structure and framework are the same, but the system itself has changed quite a bit.

--How exactly has it changed?
Konishi:At first, a BLE beacon, a device that emits special radio waves, was attached to the ceiling, and the target person would receive these waves with his or her smartphone while being guided to the destination. However, we ran into problems with this approach. The accuracy of location information recognition was not precise enough, and there was a problem in measuring the exact location. So we thought we could use the system successfully if we limited it to a form of guidance based on Braille blocks rather than arbitrary locations in space, but it still didn't work. In the end, although it was a big decision, we settled on a form of guidance using a cell phone camera to detect QR codes. This may be one of the reasons why beacons have not yet been fully adopted worldwide.

--what caused it not to work with the beacon?
Sakurada:The strength of the beacon's signal is important for positioning, but if the beacon is exposed to water or the human body, the signal rapidly weakens. In the first place, continued use of the beacon resulted in a positioning error of several meters, and we concluded that it was not up to the level of positioning needed by people with visual impairments. From there, we switched to a system using QR codes.

Konishi:Although the switch to QR codes was a big decision, it was not all bad. The maintenance and installation costs are much lower than with beacons, and above all, the QR code system is easy to understand. If we had continued to use beacons, the system would have been more complicated and required more equipment, which would have placed a greater burden on the service recipients. We spent nearly a year optimizing the beacon system, and it was very difficult to switch from one system to another. In that sense, it was a big decision.

-It is a very big decision to replace the system with something completely different. Who made that decision, Tokyo Metro or PT?
Nakamura:Since we were working together with high expectations for the technical aspects, we honestly trusted PT's skills and knowledge in that area. I honestly trusted PT's skills and knowledge. We accepted the proposal and decided to experiment again.

Konishi:At the first experiment using QR codes (after the switchover), the upper management from Metro came to see us... thinking, "This is just the first experiment" (laughs). (Laughs.) But the moment we tried it, they seemed to be impressed and said, "This looks great. The board members also said, "This is a low-cost system that can be introduced even on local lines with low budgets. It was great that they understood the cost advantages.

Nakamura:Mr. Sakurada was very nervous, wasn't he (laughs)?

Konishi:I think he (the engineer) was sick to his stomach every time. We (the sales side) made promises on our own. If we couldn't do it, he would say, "Why can't you do it? It's tough, isn't it?

--Did the project go more smoothly after the adoption of the QR code?
Konishi:Actually, there was a fundamental problem. We needed to include information on where the user is currently facing, rather than just directing the user to the exit. For example, when the first QR is detected after getting off the train, it is necessary to tell the user which way he or she should be facing at that point. The participants also said that they were scared if they did not know which way to turn after getting off the train. We had to indicate the direction they were facing from the code, and the technical members did their best to solve this problem. There were many difficulties, but the technical members were excellent and the process went smoothly.

Nakamura:Currently, some stations are not yet equipped with platform doors, and there is a possibility of falling onto the tracks. Since you can't take a step off the platform, many people say, "I just want to get off the platform as soon as possible.

Konishi:To achieve that "how to get you out (from the platform) quickly", you must indicate which way to go from the moment you get off the train, left or right. There is always a Braille block sentence crosswalk by the stairs, so you can always get out by exploring it. The only question is, "Which way should I go out?" If you go the other way, you have to go back. For the visually impaired, it is important to know "which way to go, left or right" once they get off the train. It is a basic function to guide them outside as quickly as possible; if they hold up a QR code, it can tell them which end of the platform is which, and even whether or not there is a platform door, so it can replace signage. I think it is important to have a signage function as well as navigation.

-- Next, please tell us about the demonstration experiment.
Nakamura:First, we are conducting a demonstration experiment at Tatsumi Station. Since the start of the experiment, including those who have been participating since the hypothesis testing phase at Metro facilities, we have already conducted about 35 people, and we are still in the process of repeating the experiment.

Konishi:The students of Tsukuba University of Technology at the time of the start of the experiment were the main collaborators. They became members at the center of the development through various advices and participation in the experiments.

--How was the response to the demonstration experiment?
Konishi:Many people who have actually used the system have asked us to introduce it as soon as possible, and I think it has been well received. Metro is participating in the experiment with the participants by putting up QR codes, tabulating questionnaires, and using the actual system, so we are not saying this on our own (laughs), but I think we are getting a good response.

Kudo:In fact, looking at the questionnaire, most of the respondents answered "yes" or "would very much like to recommend" to the question "would you recommend it to someone you know? We believe that this was a better response than walking around relying only on Braille, as the amount of information is different.
For many years, we have been considering how to prevent accidents involving falls from platforms. We have been promoting not only hardware measures such as platform doors, but also software measures such as the "watchful eyes" program, in which station staff and other personnel are required to keep station premises safe. However, the idea of introducing new technology was not something that came up within the company, so what we gained from this program was significant.

Nakamura:It is the company's policy to expand and install platform doors at all stations in the future. However, of course there is a time lag (until all stations are equipped with platform doors), and since platform doors are only to protect safety by preventing falls, we would like to strengthen the software side of the system as well, as we have done this time. This is something that Metro would not have come up with on its own, and since we don't have the technology to begin with, it was very significant for us to implement this program.

-- It seems that you got good results from this demonstration experiment. Are there any aspects of the demonstration experiment that you are happy about?
Konishi:Services for the visually impaired, though, are really hard to keep going. There are a number of similar companies and services that have emerged around the world, but they have all come to a halt. We are able to continue thanks to Metro, who has been working with us for two years and providing us with opportunities and venues. As is often the case in university research, we often hear that even if we work with a major company, they will provide the money, but "just do the rest on your own" or "just publish the paper. But that is harsh. I think the important point is how far they are willing to go with us. At any rate, there is no such system anywhere in the world that uses QR codes for navigation and signage. We have no choice but to test our hypotheses, since we and Metro are the only ones working on this. We have to think from scratch about how it can be developed and how it can be used to make it useful for everyone, and we have to do it continuously. The good thing for us is that Metro has been working with us for the past two years, which is great.

Nakamura:I am glad that we were able to work together from the initial hypothesis testing using our own facilities. Until now, railroad companies have always taken pride in their own efforts to create their own safety systems, but I think it is great that we can supplement that with programs such as this. I was inspired by the enthusiasm and knowledge of the engineers, and I have nothing but respect for them.

--On the other hand, were there any difficulties in working together?
Nakamura:When the Corporate Value Creation Department was formed and the program was launched in 2016, there were a lot of questions within the company such as "Accelerator? Open Innovation? What is that?" But now, the understanding has spread to "Oh, Accelerator! But now, the understanding of the program has spread. Even if we decide to implement the program, we cannot use a mock station without the permission of each department with which we are collaborating, so I feel that the openness with which we proceeded with the program, with its clear objectives, made it easier for people to understand.

--This was a demonstration experiment that was made possible as a result of open innovation becoming well known within the company. What are your future plans for this project?
Nakamura:We have received requests for tours from other companies and inquiries from visually impaired customers who want to use the system, partly because we issued a release on our efforts, and we feel that we are attracting the attention of people we normally do not approach. However, I believe that it is meaningless to complete this system only at Metro stations. It is meaningless if we cannot guide people to the non-Metro lines they are transferring to, or to the buildings and stores of their destinations. We do not want to close the system with our efforts alone, but rather to expand it more openly.

Konishi:This system is based on the premise of getting information from Braille blocks. QR codes will be posted on Braille blocks nationwide, and when you stand on them, you will receive information. If you get lost, the GPS function will guide you, but we are not sure if all of them will work properly. Especially when you get lost indoors, the GPS may not be able to reach you, so we would like to make it possible to get the information you want as long as you can find the Braille block, even if it is outside the station.

-- Finally, do you have a message for those considering the Accelerator Program?
Konishi:As for advice for start-up companies, I would like to tell them not to be lax in their efforts just because the company has just started, but to be thorough. I think that companies just starting out often have little experience, and young people are often the mainstay of the company, and they may not have much experience in the business itself. Even if they don't know what to do, as long as they are proposing a company or a new service, they have to be professional. I think you should do your best to ensure that it is better than anything that has come before in the world. I don't mean to inspire you, but I think there are more opportunities like the accelerator program thanks to companies like Creww. But in order to keep it going, it has to produce results. Are you making an effort to produce results? And. As professionals, we should not have the laxity of saying, "It's a startup...," and if we are going to do it, we should do our best in everything from documentation to organizing meetings as professionals.

Nakamura:What you just said made my spine stand up straight. I would like to say to the business community, "Let's give it a try first. I think there are companies that have prejudice against start-ups because they have never had contact with them before. They have a prejudice because they have never had contact with startups before. (laughs). (laughs). Metro itself was the same way. But as a business partner, you have to meet with them first. Even if you don't immediately implement the program, I think it's important to take the first step, such as visiting a Creww event!

writing (e.g. as a profession)
INNOVATIVE PORT" is an open innovation media operated by Creww, Inc. that connects startups, entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs in recovery, and companies aiming to create new businesses on the theme of social issues.
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PORT by Creww is an open innovation media for startups, entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs in recovery, and companies seeking to create new businesses on the theme of social issues, operated by Creww Co.


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