Tokyo tests next-gen navigation system for foreign cyclists

A next-generation navigation system that provides audio guidance to rental bicycle users via satellite data and a smartphone is being tested in the area around Tsukuba Express Asakusa Station in Taito Ward, Tokyo.

The system selects routes that are preferable for bicyclists, such as those that avoid uphill slopes. Its audio features are available in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean.

With an eye toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Taito Ward and its partners plan to continue improving the system so it can be used to attract overseas tourists.

The testing is being conducted by a panel on geospatial transportation management comprising the Taito Ward government, Nagoya University and others.

Together with a receiver for the satellite signal, a smartphone equipped with a dedicated app was installed on the handlebars of 20 rental bicycles in the ward. After the user inputs a destination into the smartphone, the system provides audio instructions such as "Proceed straight ahead" or "Turn right at the next intersection."

The audio is transmitted through bone conduction headphones, which convert sound into weak vibrations that are transmitted through bones near the ears.

Unlike regular headphones or earphones, they do not block the ear canal, making it possible to clearly hear outside sounds such as car horns or railroad crossing warnings.

Thanks to the help of a quasi-zenith satellite, the directions are 10 times more accurate than those using the global positioning system alone, allowing the margin of error to be reduced to one meter, according to Nagoya University Prof. Takayuki Morikawa, a transport planning expert who is supervising the testing.

The system can also choose streets that are level and instruct the rider to use a dedicated bicycle lane where one is available.

The bicycles can be borrowed free of charge during the testing periods from Jan. 11 to 17, and Jan. 25 to 31 at Tsukuba Express Asakusa Station's Minami Bicycle Parking Area. Testers will be asked to complete a questionnaire about the navigation system and the tourist facilities they visit.

Azusa Dodo, 41, a native of Aichi Prefecture now living in Berlin, did some sightseeing in the Tokyo area during a trip home, visiting Tokyo Skytree in Sumida Ward on one of the navigation system-equipped bicycles.

"The directions were a little bit off at times, but I was able to get there even though it was my first time," said Dodo. "In Europe, many people use bicycles out of concern for the environment. It should be a hit with foreign tourists."

The central government has set a goal of increasing the number of overseas visitors to 20 million per year by 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics will be held.

"There are many world-famous sightseeing spots in our ward, such as Sensoji temple, and nearby, including Tokyo Skytree," said Masaaki Hirabayashi, Taito Ward's tourist division chief. "We want to try to attract tourists through the effective use of bicycles."

The main challenge is that just one single quasi-zenith satellite is in operation, so navigation using the signal is only available during a specific time period of the day. Tall buildings may sometimes obstruct the signal, preventing clear reception.

"We want to study the results of this testing and further increase the accuracy," Prof. Morikawa said.

For inquiries, contact the testing headquarters at (03) 3760-9177 or the rental station at 080-3470-5985.

Quasi-zenith satellite

A man-made satellite for determining the locations of people and objects that functions to complement and augment the US GPS system. The satellite Michibiki, launched in September 2010, travels in a figure-eight pattern through the skies over the area from Japan to Australia. Currently, it is only available for a few hours a day.

The Basic Plan on Space Policy, adopted by the government on Jan. 9, included the provision of a total of seven satellites to enable around-the-clock use.