Jan. 20--Compared to the thousands of high-tech exhibits at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, people found something very different at the #AccessibleOlli exhibit.
"Usually CES is about asking people to just look at your shiny new widget," IBM Rochester's Eric Jenney. "We think it's more enjoyable to making people think."
Perry Dykes, who works with Jenney on the IBM Rochester Internet of Things team, made it clear to the people in long lines waiting go through the #AccessibleOlli prototype exhibit they helped create.
"This is not about product placement," he said.
The elaborate exhibit with three stations allowed people to interact with the Olli shuttle and a "smart" bus stop. Olli is an electric, self-driving trolley that's designed for public transportation. It's the creation of Arizona-based Local Motors and a collection of partners, including the Rochester IBM team.
The exhibit was programmed with maps of downtown Rochester peppered with factoids about Mayo Clinic, thanks to Patrick Seeb of the Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency and the City of Rochester.
These mostly 3D-printed vehicles will show up the streets on a few U.S. cities in pilot programs this year with the goal of broader release in 2019.
At this point, the team of Jenney, Dykes and Matt Paschal are helping make the customized shuttle accessible to people with disabilities or limitations of all kinds.
That means automatic entry ramps, interfaces that "speak" and understand sign language, built-in wheelchair restraints, audible instructions, displays of local information on the "windows"/ screens and more.
"The design of a bus has been the same for the last 100 years. We're at a sea change for transportation. We're asking people how we can capitalize on the change," Jenney said. "I think that message really resonated."
Visitors to the exhibit took on one of four programmed personas, like a person in a wheelchair, to interact with the prototype bus.
Famed blind singer Stevie Wonder and his entourage were among the thousands to try out Olli. The IBM team were surprised when the group became excited about a feature they had envisioned to help people in wheelchairs.
A system that uses a three-word location label for a specific three-meter square can drop off people right at spots with wheelchair-accesible sidewalks and doors.
"Stevie Wonder's group were very excited about the three words for feature. They said, 'Wow. That's really helpful,'" Jenney said.
For blind or vision-impaired person, being dropped off at the exact same spot gives them frame of reference. Move that by 50 feet up the sidewalk and their mental map is completely thrown off.
A man in a wheelchair told them he really like the automatic restraints for people like him, but he couldn't turn his head to back up into the correct spot.
"That stopped us for a minute. Then we realized there was a giant monitor right in front of him. We can use guidance arrows to guide him back, like parking assistance," Dykes said.
Other people used older wheelchairs that were wider than the models the engineers used and long mobility scooters were difficult to maneuver, #AccessibleOlli's designers are now tweaking its dimensions.
Olli can call you by name
Paschal said at another event in Minnesota, a law enforcement asked about the safety. If someone is being threatened or other bad behavior is happening, a bus driver can often stop it by simply shouting, "Hey, knock it off." So what happens when there is no driver?
Cameras are used to monitor the vehicles, so Paschal said they are looking at programming a recorded message. Jenney said a more elaborate option is allowing the person monitoring the shuttle to connect Skype-like to the smart windows.
"Having a face appear in the window could at least be distracting or disarming, while letting people know that someone is watching," he said.
Much of the interface between rider and vehicle is enhanced by IBM's cognitive software systems. Regular riders will have cards that will know all of their specific preferences. Each rider will share only as much personal information as they chose to share.
The vehicle could call them by name when they enter or not. Olli might know the rider is going to be late to a doctor's appointment and then notify Mayo Clinic of that.
Designer had considered people carrying for elderly relatives who might be worried about them traveling on their own, so the system can send messages saying Grandpa got on the right bus at the right town.
People at CES surprised Dykes by asking if that monitoring and notification technology could be used for children or even adapted to school buses. Since this is an open-source project, he said it could be used beyond the Olli platform.
While engineers like the challenge of adding so many adjustments to #AccessibleOlli, Local Motors goal is to eventually the vehicles in commercial use.
Could they end on Rochester's streets for real, instead of pretending to travel Broadway? That's hard to anticipate, but the IBM team certainly hopes so.
"After working on this for so long, we'd really like to see Olli running on Rochester streets," Paschal said.
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