Virtual reality & big data: How TfL is exploring the future of your commute

By Oliver Smith 18 January 2016
London underground traveller

We met the team bringing blue sky thinking and high-tech solutions to improve your daily journey to work.

On the fifth floor of an unassuming office building in the heart of London, some of the smartest minds in transport are planning the future of your commute.

Big data, aerospace materials and even virtual reality are being brought together by a small crack team of engineers, designers and software developers given free rein to bring innovation to London’s transport network.

“We build proof-of-concept prototypes that help push innovation, new technologies and new uses of data throughout TfL,” Jason DaPonte, one of TfL’s London Underground Innovation Managers, tells me.

Underground tunnels simply weren't built to accommodate broadband equipment.
Underground tunnels simply weren't built to accommodate broadband equipment.

Innovation Station

You might not realise it, but TfL trials and tests new ways of making our journeys through London better on an almost weekly basis.

Over the last few months the iconic yellow lines on the capital’s underground platforms have been the focus of one such experiment to encourage commuters to “mind the gap”.

Lines have been moved backwards, turned into zig-zags (which highlight where train doors will open up) or installed with blue flashing lights, all to draw our attention to the gap.

Just weeks ago Wayfindr, one of the projects that DaPonte’s team worked closely on, was rolled out at Euston underground station.

The project provides visually impaired commuters traveling through the Euston with spoken directions from their smartphone to guide them, through the magic of low-power bluetooth beacons dotted around the station

Read more: Wayfindr is unlocking London for the blind

“We’re already moving beyond just stations,” DaPonte tells me. The project could have far-reaching consequences for the entire city.

“We can now not only take someone through the station, but navigate them outside, across the street and onto a bus using Wayfindr.”

The Wayfindr project emerged out of a partnership with UsTwo, the London creative studio that also created hit smartphone game Monument Valley, the Royal London Society for Blind People and Google.

DaPonte says partnerships like this along with ideas and tips from Joe Public are where some of his team’s best innovations come from. TfL even has an innovation website where it calls on the public to submit their own ideas for solutions to the challenges that the network faces, and DaPonte regularly judges awards like Venturespring’s Smart City Challenge 2015.

“We’re always on the lookout for new technologies, new talent and new ideas, which competitions like this encourage,” he tells me.

But it’s not just commuter-facing innovations, in fact most of the work that DaPonte’s team does is focused “a little further into the future”,

Virtual reality training

“We touch on everything from things like sick passengers and customer feedback to machine data generated by everything on the underground network and even virtual reality (VR).”

And that’s where some of the most interesting developments are happening.

With VR entering the mainstream this year, starting in the gaming world, DaPonte is already exploring how TfL could harness the tech.

“We’ve already started developing prototype immersive training tools for drivers learning to drive the train, which could be combined with an immersive cab simulator,” he says.

“People always ask me, why I have an Oculus Rift on my desk? And I say ‘because it’s the future.”

The team have also created an artificial intelligence which maps the expected movements of crowds through underground stations, when combined with virtual reality DaPonte thinks this could be the future of designing stations.

“Now we can test or change something in a virtual environment, and actually see how a crowd will respond. It’s a very interesting idea.”

Big crowds, meet big data

One of the most exciting projects being worked on at the moment by DaPonte’s team is known as Accelerate, and while it remains years from completion, it could one day give TfL the ability to track each individual passenger journey through the underground network.

“We have 4.5m passenger journeys every day, most of which have at least 1 mobile device, so what can we learn from that smartphone, both actively and passively within the boundaries of privacy?”

With funding from Innovate UK, DaPonte and his team are currently exploring that question, seeing what kinds of data they could gather, and what could be learnt from such a huge amount of data.

“This is really one of the biggest projects we’re working on at the moment,” he tells me, adding that the impacts of the technology and data could impact everything from the direction of movement through an underground station to the very shape of London’s transport infrastructure.

“We might start seeing that Tuesdays at 3.30pm you start to get a bottleneck at the bottom of this specific escalator in Victoria Station, and that might change the way we do things.”

DaPonte stresses that Accelerate is only in the earliest stages and the technology has a long way to go before it would ever be deployed across the underground, not least satisfying the privacy concerns of commuters.

“We have to be very aware of the privacy concerns around this as we look at gathering sets of big data that we just wouldn’t have had before.”

Until then DaPonte and his team will continue working on the huge challenges that London’s transportation network faces, both now and into the future.