Not everyone in Bangkok gets to fully enjoy its stylish malls, sprawling markets and magnificent temples. The city faces a severe lack of basic facilities to serve persons with disabilities. While Bangkok has yet to catch up with the needs of wheelchair users, some young innovators have decided to do something about this.

A group of graduate students, and a team of student participants receiving advanced IT training from Microsoft, recently launched a smartphone application that provides information about accessibility and wheelchair facilities in Bangkok and surrounding areas, including at government agency offices and attractions. Unlike other navigation apps in the marketplace, it uses augmented reality to integrate a live, physical environment with real-time informational searches and displays.

Kriangkrai Pipatvilaikul, who is managing the Microsoft Student Partners (MSP) programme at Microsoft Thailand, said, “By actually labelling the real world through a camera, it makes navigation much easier and more accessible for anyone to understand.” The app, which germinated from a course project that Lipa Jarutian undertook with her fellow students at Thammasat University, allows users to make comments and share information, and even suggest itineraries for short trips.

Having witnessed the difficulties one of her relatives faces as a wheelchair user, Lipa had suggested focusing on tackling that issue for the project. The group found that most wheelchair users lack information about accessible and wheelchair-friendly places. “This forces many wheelchair users to stick to the same places, which effectively makes large parts of the city out of bounds for them,” Lipa explained.

 
The Wheel-go-round smartphone app uses augmented reality, a technology that integrates a live, real-world environment into the search and display of information useful for wheelchair users, such as ramps, and designated restrooms and parking spaces.

The group then joined Microsoft’s Innovate for Good programme to work with the MSP team to develop Wheel-go-round. Coding was the least of the worries for the MSP participants who have been receiving weekly training in augmented reality, Windows Azure and other advanced programming software, Kriangkrai said. She quipped, “To quote Mozart, all the notes are already there, we just need to place them in the right order.”

Nunthida Chitpukdeerat, one of the app testers and a wheelchair user, said, “The students were very hardworking, and kept coming back to us with new, improved designs for the app’s user interface. The final UI is just splendid. It’s easy to use, and has so much useful information. I’m less scared of venturing out of my home now, and plan to visit Bangkok Art and Culture Centre soon!”

Siriporn Pajharawat, Developer and Platform Strategy Director at Microsoft Thailand, said, “Microsoft is delighted to be able to support the Wheel-go-round team and their very worthwhile initiative which helps improve the lives of wheelchair users. This project shows that Innovate for Good is successfully enabling Thai youth to collaborate, and use technology to improve their communities and society.” Wheel-Go-Round was one of five finalists of the Innovation Challenge, one of the key contests run within the Innovate for Good online community, and received seed funding to support this project.

Manager of Thai Health Promotion Foundation, Dr. Krissada Raungarreerat feels that the app will help to promote inclusivity by “[removing] barriers so that wheelchair users are able to fulfil their potential and be fully participating members of society”.

Wheels-go-round (www.wheelgoround.in.th) will be available for download from the Windows Store in mid-October 2013. There are plans to add a Thai-language function to it, make it available on other smartphone platforms and include other major cities in Thailand.

Siriporn Pajharawat (left), Developer and Platform Strategy Director at Microsoft Thailand, alongside university students from the Microsoft Student Partners programme announcing the launch of the Wheel-go-round initiative