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THE IPHONE AS A JOURNEY COMPANION

Posted Nov 12 2010 12:47pm
12 November 2010


In a previous article, I briefly described some of the apps on my iPhone. I hope I made the point that the iPhone could add value to our lives as visually impaired people in a variety of ways. In this article, I plan to share some of my mobility experiences but I want to make it very clear that the iPhone is only a supplement to my white cane, my weak vision and my habit of involving others in helping me cope with out and about journeys. The current state of GPS technology does not give you precise location information and neither does it work for you inside buildings. Also, I am not anticipating that there is or will be just one app which fulfils all your needs. I have gone for an option which puts together several apps on one screen and it is pretty easy to move from one app to the other as and when you require some specific intelligence. Sometimes I need to know when the next bus is due; sometimes it’s about the next train to London. When out walking, I like to know which direction I am travelling in, especially when off the beaten track; And it is always useful to hear which roads I am passing and what the next crossing will be. At the time of writing, the missing link for me is that I don’t have the ability on the iPhone to create my own personal points of interest and hear them later as I pass by. No doubt that will come soon.

So here is a little about each of the mobility apps which I have got used to over the past few months. By the time you read this, there will be changes, improvements and possibly disappointments. We can’t assume that every app written for the iPhone will speak to us just because The apple Corporation have built their VoiceOver speech into the guts of the system. Apple can only encourage and advise developers to take heed of our particular needs. Incidentally, they each cost no more than £1.50 pence except the TomTom app which cost nearly £50 and maybe I don’t especially need now there is Sendero.

Nextbuses: If you live out of town like us, it’s pretty handy to know when the next bus is coming. Nextbuses gives you this information in great detail. Go into the app, agree to have your location confirmed by the GPS iPhone system and you are away. This location confirmation is typical of almost all the GPS maps mentioned in this article. The screen is divided into two halves. The top half is only useful when zoomed to partially sighted users because it is a map. But the lower half of the screen contains a row by row list of my local bus stops. I flick to the right with one finger and hear them in turn, each one offering me a more info choice. I double tap on the more info I want and am told the next bus is due in nine minutes and another one in twenty-one minutes. No need to rush or be anxious. . At the very top of the touch screen are two buttons: The left button, About, tells me about the app and who created it. Malcolm Barclay is very supportive of the needs of blind users.

Mybus; Mybus in many ways performs the same function as Nextbuses; but the screen is wholly taken by a map. Perhaps this is for those with some useful sight who love maps but I found it doable. There are three buttons at the top of the screen and a Map Pin Button in the bottom left corner. Top left is Favourites where you can store your most used routes. Top middle is un-named and just says button. But it takes you to the Kizoom website and gives you the chance to give them feedback. Top right is the Nearme button which has a visual effect. Tapping the map pin button, bottom left, brings up the name of the relevant street and the direction the bus is travelling. Immediately to the right of the direction is a more info button. This takes you to a screen giving details of the next bus. At the bottom of the screen are two further buttons: Bottom left takes you to a list of local taxi numbers and bottom right takes you to even more info about the bus stop and journeys. If VI users pursued the makers, This could be a very useful app, if only because of the added bonus of taxi on the spot in an unfamiliar area.

iRail:, Thetrainline and Traintimes: These three apps purport to give you useful train travel information up to the minute. They are pretty accessible but, when out and about relying on the somewhat tedious iPhone onscreen keyboard, perhaps Traintimes is the easiest to manage. When you first go into the Traintimes app, you are asked if you want to designate a home station. If you do, a search text field comes up and you start typing in the first few letters of your chosen station. It is pretty quick, for instance, to get to Peterborough. Once confirmed, you come to a screen divided up as follows: At the top of the screen is e.g. Peterborough Departures and immediately below you can select a station for your journey. Below this is Plan A Journey followed by Next Train Home. At the bottom of the screen is the option to change your settings. You might here change your home station, choose only direct trains, show the distance you will travel etc. As usually happens with the Iphone, there is a back button top left on the screen. The response is remarkably quick and accurate. As with the bus information, you know within a minute or so of actual changes.
UK Ireland: This is the iPhone TomTom app, the only expensive app mentioned here at around £50. I don’t really need this but was curious and delighted to find that it is extremely accessible and usable after a deal of practice and growing understanding. It is actually quite nice to hear what you are passing, streets, shops and towns when you are on a coach or in a car. You can even plan a journey for a seeing driver. I bought TomTom to use as a pedestrian before Sendero released their free app but more of this later. I won’t describe its functions in any detail here but might recommend it for a blind partner who wants in some way to share the navigation stresses with a seeing driving partner or friend.

Compass: I am one that likes to know the direction in which I travel. I aim to build up a mental map of my surroundings, so a talking compass is the perfect solution as an integral part of the phone I carry with me. The iPhone compass gives your travel direction to within a few degrees and responds quickly as you move your position.
Sendero GPS, avicat and GPS20S: Each week some new GPS app becomes available for the iPhone. The various apps are pretty similar and I mention three here you might want to explore. They tend to operate in a similar manner, giving pin map information re where you are and what is around. By the time you read this, the whole picture may well have changed but for now I will describe Sendero GPS because it is currently the most accessible and has been produced by a company which has, over the years, done great service to blind people and their mobility needs.

If you are in doors, in a car or near some electrical machinery, the chances are you get an opening message warning you of Compass interference. You are told to wave the iPhone in a figure of eight way to get rid of this. The Sendero screen is divided into three parts: At the top, you read what you need to know in any situation. Towards the bottom, there are three very clearly labelled buttons: Where am I, nearest cross point and nearest points of interest. Double tapping on either button takes you to masses of useful info relevant to where you are. At the very bottom of the screen are the following buttons from left to right: map, compass, Shake on, settings, and POI category.

Sat at my desk at home, double tapping where am I tells me I am facing South near the address of my house. It is as good as that. Likewise, the nearest crossing buttons accurately tells me the name of my road and the main road at its end. The POI default is set to business so, the nearest five points of interest are local companies, the first being The Holiday Inn. There is a vibration to assure you that a connection is being made. Now for the buttons at the bottom of the screen.

The map button is no use to me but could be zoomed up by a partially sighted person or seeing companion. The compass button reminds me I am facing South and responds quickly if I turn round in my chair. The Shake on button is a toggle. When on, I can just shake my iPhone to hear the where am I information. The off option is for when you are on a bumpy journey, I suppose. The Settings button gives three options: Again, shake gesture, North America or Europe, and, lastly, measurements in in yards or metres. There is a useful help button bottom right of this screen and a back button top left.

In a word, it’s great and the only thing missing is the ability to create your own points of interest. We are given eighteen POI categories from Airport to school in alphabetical order. I failed to make this feature work at first but learned you have to swipe up or down with one finger to select your chosen category.

Well, clearly, there is much more to all this and exciting things to come at low cost to us users, I plan to present more iPhone information to Access IT readers over the coming months on such subjects as listening to radio and podcasts, educational stuff, games and leisure etc. I want to make it clear that we don’t sell the iPhone. You must go mainstream to the nearest Apple store. But we do sell a small braille display and keyboard, the BraillePen, for £995 as an introductory offer which works brilliantly with an iPhone or indeed with other mobiles and computers as well. As a long-term braillists, it is a huge thrill to be able to feel dots as well as to listen and we are proud to introduce the first braille display into the UK for under £1000. .

Roger and Margaret Wilson-Hinds run Screenreader.net, a not for profit company which focuses on low cost or no cost access technology solutions. We are currently involved in promoting the Thunder free screen reader software for Windows and the range of Apple solutions which have accessibility , VoiceOver, built into the operating system.

Contact DetailsTel: 01733 234441
Email: roger@screenreader.net.
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