Navigating by chimes – Where the doors go Ping!

On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Platforms go Bong!
And the Escalators all say Boo!
There’s a Nong Nang Ning
Where the doors go Ping!
And the lift doors Jibber Jabber Joo … *

Kyoto train sign

A few years back I was lucky enough to visit Japan. One of my lasting sound memories was the strange bell chimes that could be heard as I walked through the Kyoto metro stations. The sounds changed depending on where I was in the station. Apparently, they are used by the visually-impaired to help them navigate and get around. Such auditory signalling might now be coming to Europe after a  successful study funded by the French railways in Paris’ Montparnasse Station [1].
We’re used to following visual signs directing us around public spaces, such as the endless signs to baggage claim which accompnay your jet-lagged trudge through vast airports. The railway study investigated whether people could be directed along a pathway using sounds. The sounds were meant to help answer three common questions : Which way do I go? Am I still going in the right direction? Are we nearly there yet? Hear the sounds. The small-scale study produced promising results, and showed that sound signals help navigation even for people without visual impairment.
But do we really want stations which go bong as we walk along? I’m already tired of hearing from lifts that the doors are about to open or close – the mechanical sound of the door mechanism is  a pretty good clue already. Douglas Adams’ prophecies in the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy about how annoying talking and beeping technologies can be should be ringing warning bells (but only silent ones).
[1] Tardieu, J., Susini, P., Poisson, F., Kawakami, H., and McAdams, S. (2009). “The design and evaluation of an auditory way-finding system in a train station,” Applied Acoustics 70, 1183-1193.
*Apologies to Spike Milligan

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