The question I most often get asked at MWC is not what’s hot and what’s not. It’s always, how the hell do you cope with Barcelona and the FIRA as a blind person? The answer is a combination of planning, people and technology.
- The annual MWC Lewis spreadsheet is legendary. It’s a masterpiece in how to cluster meetings in the same or adjacent halls (and trying to avoid anything north of Hall 5)!
- Taxis (the subway is a non starter for me). The GSMA put me in touch with a specialist disability taxi firm who sent the same driver each day and even negotiated with the police to drop me off in front of the FIRA South entrance (didn’t always work). NB: The white cane comes in useful in getting to the front of taxi queues – stick with me next year!
- Mobile Apps: having all of my appointments in the iPhone and the diary announcing everything through Voiceover, meant that I was continually getting audible input whether I wanted it or not
- Be My Eyes: an accessibility app with over a 100,000 volunteers around the world helping 400,000 visually impaired people. Simply point your smart phone camera at something, click and it polls for a volunteer who comes online via a Web RTC link to tell you what you’re looking at.
- Tap Tap See: similar to the above, does what it says in the name. Tap when pointing the camera and the system tells you it sees.
- Orcam: this new self-contained device provides character, people and product recognition from its mounting on the arm of a pair of normal glasses. Tap the side and it reads any text in front of it. It recognizes people so that it tells you their names when they stand in front of you. You can even store products like cereal packets, wine labels etc and it will tell you what they are!
Navigation around the FIRA
- A member of the GSMA customer team kindly arranged met me each morning outside and got me to my first meeting
- The venue benefits from a grid system and the upper walkway spine: as long as I knew where I was relatively, I could vaguely find my way back to the Press Centre where I made my base
- Collision avoidance: My low centre of gravity helps. I was bumped into so many times by people looking down at their phones or up at stands but never looking where they were going – despite vigorously waving my white cane. I was even rammed by a catering trolley but the person behind couldn’t see me and, not surprisingly, had expected people to get out of their way!
And, finally, just asking the hoards of people around me. Most are shocked that a man with a white stick is there at all but, as in life in general, the vast majority are phenomenally helpful. Most companies I saw actually walked me to my next meeting – a great excuse for them to get off the stand!
Just like living in London, I don’t allow myself be overwhelmed by the thought of over 100,000 delegates, 8 Halls, an Upper Walk Way, a Press Centre and even the new South Village. Just like commuting, you occupy a small island of the MWC at any time. What exists elsewhere is irrelevant, and optimising the route between islands is the goal. Shame Uber can’t operate in the aisles of the FIRA, or perhaps they, in a ground-based vehicle or a drone up near the ceiling, might well do so in the future. Or maybe I’ll give in to family pressure for a guide dog.
In terms of next year, my shopping list is pretty simple: HD Maps and iBeacons. Despite the hype around autonomous vehicles, the GSMA and the mapping companies still haven’t come up with a walking navigation step-by-step tool to tell me exactly where I am. For the premier telecoms industry event of the year, surely an app can be built based on all of that lovely tech to guide me? And, as with most accessibility technology today, everyone able-bodied I talk to say they would also love that for themselves!
Finally, my special thanks to all analysts, companies and GSMA employees who made this one of the best MWCs for me. Special mention to John Delaney from IDC who walked me back to my hotel when my taxi couldn’t get past the police barricades around the Catalonian independence demonstrators!