Imagine a bus that a person in a wheelchair could use without assistance, that automatically guides a blind passenger to his seat by sound and communicates in sign language with a deaf rider.
Those are just a few of the features that a team of IBM employees is developing as an after-hours project.
While the general public is still getting on board with the idea of self-driving cars, a team in a cluttered IBM lab is working to take transportation to the next level.
The IBM Rochester Internet of Things team is collaborating with Consumer Technology Association Foundation and Local Motors, a company developing self-driving, electric trolley-like vehicles called Olli. This is the same lab that worked on the “SWAMP” storm water management project for last year’s PlaceMakers Prototyping Festival.
Eric Jenney, program director of corporate technical strategy, explained his team’s after-hours project isn’t about driving Olli. It’s about using a variety of technology based around the IBM Cloud and Watson cognitive abilities to make Olli accessible.
“This is #AccessibleOlli. The goal is to have what Local Motors calls ‘Autonomous for All of Us’,” he said.
Jenney, Perry Dykes and Matt Paschal are busy crafting features to be added to full-sized Accessible Olli and a smart Olli bus stop to be displayed at the popular Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in January in Las Vegas.
Brittany Stotler, of Local Motors, said people should expect to start seeing Olli “pop up everywhere” in 2018 as pilot projects launch in several cities. By the end of 2019, Local Motors expects to be using 3D printing to manufacture easily customized versions of Olli.
The basic Olli is already tapping IBM’s Watson cognitive systems to interact with riders by providing weather forecasts and even telling jokes. That provides a starting point for adding accessibility features.
“Once they build it, so it can tell you a joke … the sky’s limit. That’s the point,” Jenney said. “We can build it so it knows your schedule, where you are supposed to go next, tell you if you’re late.”
Dykes, an electronic support architect with IBM Systems, shows off a small device, which paired with a camera and a monitor will allow #AccessibleOlli to interact with hearing impaired riders.
“The sign language on monitor will say “Hello, Brent” and then ‘Brent’ will be able to interact with the monitor using sign language,” he explained. “This next stage is about taking a much more active digital role in the public transportation system to integrate people who feel disenfranchised.”
The display at CES is expected to have an automatic ramp that will deploy automatically within seconds for people with wheelchairs to board plus technology to allow people in wheelchairs to automatically tether themselves in Olli with a touch of a button.
What about people who can’t see or reach a button?
Further improving design
The team is working on creating virtual “buttons” in the air by using haptic feedback vibrations for riders that need them.
Circuit Design Engineer Paschal said high-resolution cameras monitored by artificial intelligence systems will keep an “eye” on things, like a driver does on a standard bus. The cameras will provide security as well as watch for riders experiencing medical emergencies.
The need for mass transportation for people with many different levels of physical ability makes Rochester particularly well-suited for this type vehicle. While there are no plans to run #AccessibleOlli on Rochester streets, Paschal said Mayo Clinic and Destination Medical Center would make this a logical testing ground.
However, visitors at the Las Vegas technology show will get to virtually experience driving through downtown Rochester by the Gonda Building and other landmarks.
Because it doesn’t make sense to actually drive the vehicle at the convention, the windows will be monitors showing 360-degree video of a trip on Third Avenue.
And pop-up facts will show up on those “windows” explaining details about buildings and the city. That’s a feature that the team hopes to incorporate into the real #AccessibleOlli to display news, weather and local information on the glass in the vehicle.
The team also points out that adding features like this won’t end with the creation of the CES prototype. Large groups of people are submitting ideas to Local Motors. In fact, the original Olli concept came from a crowd-sourced idea that many people then built on. Solutions, like Olli telling a rider that they’ve forgotten their bag, have also come up at intense “hackerthons.”
“No set of people sitting in a conference room has all of the ideas,” Jenney said.
Of course, there’s no shortage of ideas in IBM’s Internet of Things lab.
What if Olli could know the primary language a rider speaks and then communicates with them via Spanish or whatever.
Dykes speculates about what would happen if Olli could communicate with buildings and possibly even enter them.
“What if Olli could go into the building and be your elevator? Getting out on the street … who set that up?” he said. “How do you take it [transportation]to the next level? You don’t know it until you try it.”