The cities of the future will talk to us via our smartphones

A researcher monitors a man's response to a particular street-scape. Image: Future Cities Catapult.

Earlier this year, the Future Cities Catapult teamed up with Microsoft and Guide Dogs to conduct "Cities Unlocked": a project, to improve cities for the visually impaired. But, says Claire Mookerjee, it could hold provide benefits for all of us.

Imagine if the city you worked in worked hard for you, too. If signs showed what you needed to know, when you needed to know it; stations didn’t need barriers, because trains and busses already knew you had a ticket; store fronts told you that they stocked an item, just because it was on your shopping list.

It’s not the pipe dream it sounds. With maturing mobile technology, a growing pool of personal data in digital form, and increasingly smart streets, this kind of city experience is an increasing reality. At the Future Cities Catapult, we’ve been working on a project with Microsoft and Guide Dogs to investigate how that idea could be used to help visually impaired people navigate their cities better.

To do that, we wanted to understand how the visually impaired experienced the world; to know what they found confusing, frustrating or, occasionally, helpful. So as part of Cities Unlocked we followed participants, watching them and monitoring their emotional reactions using EEGs to see how urban environments made them feel. Now we know, for instance, that visually impaired people find pedestrianized areas particularly frustrating, while both sighted and non-sighted individuals find green space relaxing.

Armed with those kinds of insights, we worked with Microsoft to build a prototype device, that supplies a 3D soundscape to augment the sounds of the street. Running on a smartphone, the app uses location data and interactions with nearby wireless networks to provide audio cues – about orientation, navigation and nearby points of interest – via a set of bone-conduction headphones, which don’t block out ambient sound. In real-world trials – on a route between Reading and London involving walking, bus and train journeys – participants reported feeling significantly more confident and comfortable in their surroundings when using the device.

But it’s not just the visually impaired that can benefit. Participants in our study all felt happier because they knew more about their surroundings: something we all deserve.

Now, more than ever, our cities can communicate with us about themselves. They can provide information, answer our questions and even express their characters in interesting new ways: that can mean basic navigational prompts in a city we’ve never visited, provided via discrete vibration of a smart watch, or nuanced local knowledge about the vibe of a coffee shop, articulated through music.

The technology’s certainly ready. We each carry a smartphone that’s capable of knowing where we are, sending and receiving large amounts of data, interacting with other devices and logging rich streams of information. Indeed, tools like digital maps are already using much of it to curate digital representations of space for us, to provide the information we most likely need. All of this allows more opportunity to interact with a world of invisible information that currently circulates in our city streets, be it public Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth beacons in shops or Near Field Communication sensors at tills.

So we find ourselves at a tipping point. The technology is woven into our cities, becoming increasingly rich by the day: what we need now is for city leaders to make the most of it and test new ways of using it at scale. With the integrated city systems market up for grabs worth an estimated £200bn by 2030, there’s certainly a huge financial incentive to do so.

Some people are already seizing the opportunity. Take Neatebox: a smartphone app that wirelessly triggers the push-button at a pedestrian crossing when you stand by it for a few seconds. It’s an elegant, if simplistic, example of how wireless networks and proximity data can be used by your smartphone to make life easier. Originally designed for those with disabilities, it could make life more straightforward for all of us.

But we think cities can achieve far more. What if every signpost in the city sensed your presence? Walking towards a sign wouldn’t just allow you to read it more clearly, but also to interact with it: it could point you in the direction of the store you’re already trying to find, tell you how long it will take to get home including the walk to the bus stop or even change language on the fly.

Taken to the extreme, this kind of interconnected city would create opportunities to redesign the public spaces. If a train knows that you’re allowed to be boarding it because you’ve already paid for your travel online, the need for ticketing – and with it the associated kiosks, machines and barriers – simply melts away. Instead, the station can become a more open and inclusive space, which allows for free movement and an emphasis on accessibility, rather than ticket purchase and validation.

That example, of course, requires the use of technology to be absolutely pervasive. But at a smaller scale it’s already happening. Now, it’s time for city leaders to make sure it's done right, in a way that makes citizens lives easier and more enjoyable, while protecting their privacy and security. The city can work hard for us – we just need to make it do so.

Claire Mookerjee is project lead for urbanism at Future Cities Catapult

 
 
 
 

Every Disney theme park, ranked solely by their trains

The HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH (tm. Image: Getty.

Walt Disney: animation pioneer, ruthless tycoon, union crusher… and train fan. Ever since his childhood in the town of Marceline on the Santa Fe railroad, Disney had a lifelong fascination with trains. 

He not only included them in his films (most famously, the persistent Casey Jr. in Dumbo) but he built them too. After back injuries stopped him playing sport, he became interested in model trains, and in 1949, he built the miniature Carolwood Pacific Railroad in his garden. And every Disney park features some type of train transportation.

But which one is the best? This is the definitive ranking.

Before we start, let’s quickly set out what we mean by trains. No, rollercoasters don’t count, even if it pretends to be a proper railway (Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, I’m looking at you). We’re only interested in vehicles that run on some sort of rail, outdoors, under their own power. Lots of websites have ranked Disney parks by their rollercoasters, but only CityMetric will tell you which one has the best variety of rail vehicles.

6. Shanghai Disney Resort

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This is the best photo I could find of Shanghai Disney Resort station. More like, Dismal Resort. Photo: Baycrest/Wikimedia Commons.

The Disney park in Shanghai was supposedly specially tailored to Chinese tastes, and apparently Chinese people don’t like trains, because this park doesn’t have any fun ones. The only rail transport it has is a station on the Shanghai Metro. To be fair, that’s an impressive system – the second largest underground network in the world, but Disney doesn’t get the credit for that – and perhaps it explains why Shanghai residents wouldn’t think of trains as something to ride for fun.

5. Hong Kong Disneyland

You’ve got to admit – the windows are a neat touch. Photo: Hokachung/Wikimedia Commons.

At least this one has one train ride – the Hong Kong Disneyland Railroad which transports guests between the Main Street USA and Fantasyland areas – but unlike the equivalent railways in the other parks, the “steam” engines are just diesel locomotives dressed up with funnels and coal tenders. 

It also slightly one-ups Shanghai Disney Resort by having not just a subway station, but a dedicated line on the Hong Kong MTR system, and the trains on it rather charmingly have Mickey Mouse-shaped windows.

4. Tokyo Disney

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Just remember, even Tokyo DisneySea has a better metro network than Leeds. Photo: Garet/Wikimedia Commons.

From here on in, it’s nothing but good stuff. Tokyo may be on the bottom half of this list, but it still has a monorail which runs around the park and connects it to commuter rail services at Maihama station, a genuine steam-powered sightseeing train called the Western River Railroad, and an overhead electric railway in the DisneySea part of the resort. 

That said, it was a slow adopter of trains – under Japanese law, any railway line with more than one station used to be regulated as transportation. The monorail and the elevated line weren’t built until after that law was repealed.

3. Disneyland (Anaheim, the original)

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The far future, as seen from 1959. Photo: HarshLight/Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a lot to like here. The Disneyland monorail is a famous piece of retro space age engineering, while the steam railroad was directly inspired by Walt’s own model trains and those of his friend Ward Kimball, and the Main Street Streetcar is one of the few horse-drawn trams left in the world. More recently, the park has also added a tram that replicates the appearance of the classic Red Car streetcars (famous from Who Framed Roger Rabbit), although it actually runs on battery power despite having fake overhead wires.

Why doesn’t it rank higher? Well, the Casey Jr Circus Train is really just a children’s ride with only one station, and most of the others can also be found at…

2. Walt Disney World (Orlando)

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I should include a steam train somewhere. Might as well be here. Photo: Jackdude101/Wikimedia Commons.

Monorail? Check. Horse tram? Check. Steam railway? Check. No electric tram, but it does have a safari train, the Wildlife Express that runs through the Animal Kingdom, and the frankly bizarre Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover. 

Supposedly a vision of public transport of the future, the ride only actually has one station, rendering it completely useless as a people mover, but it is powered by linear induction, the same basic principle that pushes maglev trains along.

1. Disneyland Paris

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Keep your Space Mountains and your Pirates of the Caribbeans. This is all we want from a Disneyland. Photo: Remontees/Wikimedia Commons.

OK, there’s no monorail here, but there is another steam railway and another horse tram (and another Casey Jr). But there is also one thing that sets Disneyland Paris apart from all other Disney parks: le Gare de Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy. 

Buried underneath the park is a station with both local train services on the Paris RER and high-speed lines. TGV services from all corners of France call at the station, meaning you are just a few hours away from Bordeaux, Lille, Marseille, Nantes or Strasbourg. Even better, the station also gets trains from Eurostar and Thalys to destinations like Amsterdam, Brussels and, of course, London.

Some of Disneyland Paris’s direct train connections. It’s not such a small world after all. Adapted from a map by madcap/Wikimedia Commons.

The best most Disney parks can do when it comes to international experience is a quick boat ride through the pretend dioramas It’s a Small World, but from Disneyland Paris, you actually can travel to another country. And that’s why it’s the happiest place on earth, provided that your definition of happiness mainly involves trains.