Artificial intelligence research is helping the disabled use public transportation

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Maneuvering the tunnels, stairs and multiple train tracks at San Jose's Diridon Station is challenging for most people. Make one wrong move, and you could be at a platform for a northbound Caltrain instead of a southbound VTA light rail train.

It can be even more difficult for those with vision, hearing or other issues, especially as the population grows older. So, three partners are working on a high-tech project to deploy artificial intelligence to make taking public transit easier.

"If you are even 10 meters away, the bus driver might simply don't recognize that you are wanting to take the bus and run by without stopping," said Roberto Manduchi, a US Santa Cruz computer engineer.

IBM Research's Almaden facility in San Jose, researchers at UC Santa Cruz and VTA are using a $992,000 National Science Foundation grant to design and install an Internet of Things system that taps into the cloud, smartphones and data devices called beacons at Diridon Station.

One year into the three-year grant, the project is getting ready to deploy the beacons. The goal is to give passengers with special needs real-time information to help them find the right track, the correct platform, the desired train, and the optimum spot for boarding. The technology could also alert the passenger when to disembark and to confirm that the passenger is on the right train.

"We try to estimate how far away is the person from a good boarding area or not and provide a visual cue to the user," said Divyesh Jadav, an IBM research manager. "There is a big effort within IBM to see how we can employ technologies that are not traditionally used for the elderly to make their lives simpler."

The project hits close to home for VTA Chief information officer Gary Miskell, whose 90-year-old mother stopped riding public transportation for this very reason.

"When she takes the bus and when she's out, she gets very confused so she no longer takes the bus because she goes, I'm not sure which bus is the right one to take to get back home," said Miskell.

Graduate students at UC Santa Cruz are also part of the team. This is believed to be a unique public-private partnership that could be used for transit terminals nationwide. With plans in the works to expand Diridon Station with the addition of BART and high-speed rail, negotiating an expanded intermodal station will be even more challenging.

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