Monday, December 31, 2018

year end reflections

Year End Reflections for 2018 Hello everyone. I haven’t done a personal blog entry in ages. The Personal Power guide I’ve been working on plus segments I’m doing for Kelly and Company have scratched that blogger’s itch. The rest of life certainly hasn’t been uneventful. I just don’t have the same need to document everything as I once did. However, I feel a need to take stock today at year’s end. Where to begin? Married life seems a good place. Sara and I are enjoying a largely stress-free and happy marriage. We’re both pretty good communicators and overall positive people. We certainly have disagreements but have typically managed to talk through them without inflicting pain on each other. Both of us have our own separate spheres of life and share enough interests to value our time together. It’s hard to believe we’re i our fourth year of marriage. The work I’m doing for Kelly and Company on AMI Audio has proved to be very rewarding and also quite challenging at times. How to cram all the information I want to impart into fifteen-minute segments isn’t always easy. However, it has helped organize my thinking when it comes to working on Personal Power: the iOS Edition. Increasingly though, it’s harder to make the two projects dovetail as the guide enters what I hope will be the last stretch of work. It’s been a very long haul and my initial enthusiasm for the guide is fatigued. There’s still quite a lot to get done before it’s ready for release. I’ve done way too much work to cut corners or just walk away from the project. It’s got to get done right. Financially, AMI Audio has continued to compensate me for the segments I prepare and I’m ever so thankful for this opportunity for paid work. It still feels precarious despite this being my second year of producing segments. I’ve just passed the 100 segment mark. I didn’t imagine it would last so long and there’s still the niggling dread that one day, it’ll just snap off like a switch and vanish. That keeps not happening though. Because of this income, I’ve been able to acquire a lot more apps and try things that I simply wouldn’t hav felt free to without it. The guide will be a far better resource due to this. My library of legally owned books and audio dramas has certainly gotten larger. So far there haven’t been any issues with ODSP or Peel Housing. I don’t think the upcoming changes to social assistance will cause us any trouble. However, I have a distrust for Conservatives and their tendency to dismiss and devalue people who haven’t managed to become self-sufficient. I worry tremendously about our new premiere and his habit of ignoring science in favour of ideology. It’s a case of scrapping every bit of long-term thinking the other side did regardless of merit. There’s already a stupid amount of that going on south of the border. Greed and self-centred short-term thinking is sadly winning the day right when the planet needs the exact opposite. I don’t think Trudo has much of a chance of surviving the next election. Too many mistakes made and too many badly needed initiatives promised which take god damned time that the other side will wipe out before they can realistically have any long-term results. That deeply frustrates me. This year’s politics really leaves me angry and wanting drastic world change which seems impossible right now. It feels like it’ll take some catastrophic disasters to really get people to change and ditch this us versus them crap. It sounds like those might even occur in my lifetime if the UN scientists are right. I hope we don’t waste all twelve of these next apparently crucial years we have to get at least some kind of grip on climate change. It should be the kick we need to start doing something about societal equality but people keep finding ways of dismissing or fighting against that kind of thing. I keep thinking there must be more good news out there that I’m just not coming across. Part of that has to do with how long working on this guide has dragged on. It makes me feel more stale than seems warranted given all the interesting apps and things I’ve learned and found while working on it. Another big milestone was that I’ve reached a point where I’ve gone completely legal in terms of the books I have. I now own every book I’ve wanted to own since my teenage years. I’ve done this without breaking the bank thanks largely to Kindle and Audible. Knowing how very hard it is to write the stories which have done so much to shape me over the years, this feels tremendously good. Once my guide is finished, I might well take another stab at writing a short story collection. Alternatively, thanks to the Voice Dream Reader app and sites like Storybundle, I have a substantial collection of books about creative writing and game development. Those will help whether I pursue rpg creation or story writing. But first, there’s the guide to finish before it drags me under creatively speaking. I still feel that it’ll fill a gap in the help that’s available for people who have or contemplate getting iOS devices. That hasn’t changed. I’m still using my iPHONE7. Unless my carrier offers me a super deal, it’ll stay that way for potentially the next couple of years. Sara upgraded to an iPHONEXR at far less expense than I had thought possible. So far, she’s pretty happy with it. Understandable coming from a 5S. It’ll be interesting to see what she does with so much more room and other advancements. The guide will be a better informed document taking her experience of these advancements. I’ve invested in some new peripherals. A great new Bluetooth speaker called a Fugu Tough has proved to be an excellent addition to my travel kit. Sadly, the Go Duo speakers didn’t last as long as I had hoped when I backed them. The Tough seems rugged and even has speech prompts about charge levels and connection status. The other major acquisition was another successful Kickstarter. It’s a Hexgears X1 mechanical keyboard. It’s being used to type this entry. The key feedback feels very nice and it’s far more comfortable to type on than the Microsoft Universal Mobile keyboard I’ll still use and deeply appreciate when travelling. However, there’s a noticeable lag and occasional missed keystrokes. I think this is a bluetooth issue and wouldn’t be surprised if these issues went away in time. I’m still getting used to the new keyboard and its quirks. It’ll certainly stand up to the amount of typing I do. The keys are rated for seventy million clicks. The Lifepack Hustle has been a very nice travel pack for longer expeditions. It just got another bit of use on our Christmas visit to sara’s family. Plenty of room for a home base away from home and I love the shock protection. It should last ages with the possible exception of the internal mesh pockets. I can see those tearing eventually although they haven’t at all yet. The apartment continues to be a good home for us. No serious issues at all to deal with. There are maintenance projects and that sort of thing but they really take care of the building and us renters quite nicely. Sara knows far more people here than I do these days. That’s largely due to her guide dog Aladdin. I really have to get out more this Spring and get into the habit of walking more like I used to. It’s less fun with hearing loss and the hearing aids being rendered useless by too much wind or background noise. Still, I’ll need that motion and different place to help deal with the race to finish this guide in the time frame I’d like to. I’m a deacon at my church now. That happened in September and so far, I think I’ve done alright in that role. I’m still learning a lot as I go but people seem largely happy with me. It’s a three year commitment that I mean to see through barring any unexpected life-changing opportunities. Going to different churches continues to be a source of interesting talk and reflection for Sara and I. It hasn’t proved anywhere near as divisive as I once would have expected. She remains the choir director at her church. I frankly never thought of myself as deacon material but when the call came, I couldn’t turn it down. My church has been there when I’ve needed them as much as that kind of organization can be. It’s only right that I do likewise. In a few hours, our New Year’s party will begin. I think it’ll be a good one. I haven’t seen as much of any of my friends as I should have. I plan to work on that a bit more this year. 2019 should be a more social and less isolated year if I can manage that. Hopefully, it’ll also see a new creative chapter begin. I’m at last close enough to finishing this guide that I can realistically hope to get to the end before iOS changes yet again. Just not as far before that happens as I would have liked. Well I think I’ll leave you here for the moment. Perhaps, I’ll get back into more of a blogging groove. Only time will tell. Have a happy new year, everyone.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Maps, Taps and GPS Apps

Maps, Taps and GPS Apps;

Getting Around The Real World;

Independent travel and gaining awareness of what’s nearby have been tremendous stumbling blocks for me in life. A lot of that difficulty is due to what caused my blindness. I was born prematurely. Doctors follow what was then a common practice of providing extra oxygen to keep me alive. This oxygen certainly had that beneficial effect. However, it also destroyed my retinas and damaged part of my brain responsible for geospatial awareness. Solving spatial puzzles, comprehending geography and geometry, keeping routes and mental maps have all proven impossible for me beyond a certain level. Things are now complicated further by moderate hearing loss requiring me to use hearing aids. They’re very helpful but don’t give me a reliable sense of distance to sounds. Even walking through relatively quiet parkland, I’ve had many occasions where people have suddenly appeared in front of me when it was too late to move around them. They weren’t standing still or walking especially quietly either. Too much wind renders my hearing aids utterly ineffective. All of this is very unsettling when you’ve been accustomed to hearing everything effortlessly for most of your life. Crowded noisy places are now things I’m likely to avoid as too much noise can render me unable to hear what people say or hear moving hazards like bikes or cars.

I thought it was vital that I explain these circumstances to you before discussing the navigational options your iOS device makes available so you can put my thoughts in proper context. I have used one of these apps called BlindSquare quite extensively and have done more limited exploratory testing of other apps I’ll discuss here. Just be aware that this is one section of this guide where I’ll be relying more on what the app makers say the apps can do and on what I’ve heard other people’s experiences have been like. For a number of my friends, these apps are all they need to feel very confident in exploring their surroundings and going to new places completely on their own. For me, they are more helpful in finding out what’s around me than it actually getting to places. Using them, I can at least be confident of eventually getting home unassisted if necessary. That in itself is quite a marvellous relief.

Having access to GPS navigation doesn’t solve all of the mobility and orientation problems for any blind person. Nor does it replace the need for a cane or guide dog and good mobility skills. These apps don’t use your device’s built-in camera to gather information and aren’t aware of what’s happening around you. They won’t warn you of oncoming cars, bikes, or other hazards. They receive a GPS signal from satellites in low Earth orbit and match what’s detected to information stored on your device or retrieved from online sources. The information may not always be fully up to date. Businesses close or change locations. Any objects such as benches, garbage cans, etc, that you might put into the information as personal points of interest to keep on track could be moved. GPS signals can be blocked by structures, cloud cover, and other things. Defence department regulations don’t allow civilian GPS receivers to be as accurate as technically possible. This is to prevent them being used to precisely guide weapons. For all these reasons, it’s not a good idea to completely rely on it as some drivers have who suddenly found themselves approaching a large body of water rather than the route they presumed was there. Use your own senses and common sense.

To help offset these difficulties, GPS apps may draw data from more than one source. Your iOS device can also tap into information received via the Internet and cell towers to help figure out where you are. Provided you are connected to WiFi, these apps are even useful to owners of iPADS which don’t come with GPS receivers included. These receivers can be bought separately so it’s perfectly possible, if somewhat more awkward, to use these apps with iPADs while moving. While stationary, iPAD owners can examine maps and virtually explore areas prior to going there exactly like they could on iPHONEs. In fact, some people may find the larger size of an iPAD helpful when exploring maps.

Using these navigational apps takes a toll on your battery. As you move, the app constantly tracks your position indicated by the received satellite signals and checks for things to notify you of against available information. When necessary, it will check for and download online information presuming this is possible. All of these activities require processing power. You may also incur data charges if you go over what your cellular data plan allows for. To minimize this, download any maps, points of interest, etc to your iOS device while you’re connected to WiFi. Check the settings for the apps you use for possible ways to govern the circumstances under which data is downloaded. Investing in an external powerbank is also a very good idea for people making frequent use of GPS apps.

Another thing to consider investing in is a means of hearing information conveyed by these apps while on the move. Some people hold their iPHONEs in their hands while travelling. This can be useful as it allows you to point the top edge of your device in directions of interest and make use of the “look around” or “geobeam” features common to GPS apps designed for blind people. This tells you what lies in the direction your device is pointing to. Most people that I talk to prefer to have their iPHONEs in their pockets and use small Bluetooth speakers, earbuds or bone conduction headsets to keep informed while their hands are free for other duties. Some apps offer support for use with Braille displays. I’ve never attempted this but would presume these displays would be small and light enough to wear around the neck or over the shoulder for easy access while on the move.

There are two types of apps we’ll be discussing here. The first kind are apps which are made for use by the general public and are also made accessible for blind people. There are a great many choices here. We’ll look at the two most popular ones. These are the Maps app which comes included in iOS, and Google Maps, its primary competition available free from the app store. We’ll also look at some apps for the general public which seek to aid their users with aspects of travel. For instance, there are apps which focus specifically on travel via public transit systems. Other apps, such as Uber, attempt to facilitate travel by connecting would-be passengers with people willing to take them in their personal cars for a fee. Other apps help with more long-range expeditions booking flights and planning itineraries.

There are also a number of GPS apps designed specifically for blind people. These apps try to offer extra information which is helpful for blind users as well as facilities to help make orientation easier. Again, we’ll focus on the two most popular of these apps in North America at least. Neither of these apps is free. In fact, one costs over $100 Canadian. It takes extra effort and expertise to make apps which are as maximally built for blind people as these ones are. They typically combine functions of two or more apps into a more seamless single app, provide information tailored to be maximally helpful for blind people, and are designed with efficient accessibility from the ground up. It can be a lot easier to master the use of one of these apps than to juggle two or more apps designed for sighted people in order to gain similar information that is by nature more minimal.

One thing you should always keep in mind when using any of these apps is that they are designed around car travel. Points of interest included in the maps and data these apps draw from will be located at parking lot entrances or driveways to places. When an app tells you that you’ve arrived, you’ll still need to find the actual entrance to a place. Nothing stops you from creating a point of interest precisely at the doorway or path you need to be at. However, it is up to you to perform this task and create the position markers helpful to you. It’s a good habit to get into. Just be ready to still possibly have to search a little if there’s GPS interference. Don’t ever presume exact precision. Also, keep in mind that when you’re told that a destination is a distance away at such and such o’clock, that’s as the crow flies. In other words, it’s a straight line to your destination that doesn’t take into account obstacles you’ll have to cross or get around.

You might wonder what kinds of special facilities and capabilities navigation apps designed specifically for blind people might have. Users of BlindSquare who wear earbuds or headsets will notice that the indicator sounds which immediately precede being told about points of interest are directionally positioned. You’ll hear the indicator beep in the direction the point is located from your position as much as this is possible. Another often used example is upcoming intersections. Apps designed for blind people will typically give more detailed information about these before a user reaches an intersection so he or she has a better idea how to safely cross it. Those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Rather than going step by step through the features and operation of each app I discuss, I have chosen to concentrate more on what these apps make possible and when they might be advantageous. There is excellent help available for each of these apps already. I see no advantage in reinventing the wheel. You can also find audio and video reviews and demos. I feel more comfortable leaving you in the hands of this expertly written help than trying to explain what I haven’t used extensively. Your safety might hinge on being familiar enough with an app’s capabilities that you have the mental space to focus more on your surroundings. Presuming you’ve read previous sections on using VoiceOver, browsing the web, etc, you’ll have the skills needed to master these navigation apps using the help provided.

Going Mainstream;

Using Apps Designed for Sighted Users:

Thin, light and portable, it’s no wonder that iPHONEs and iPADs have been turned into powerful navigation aids by clever app developers. Many apps designed for sighted users have been made accessible to blind people using VoiceOver. This has been done thoughtfully. However, blind people simply aren’t the core focus for these apps. Information these apps provide is designed to give maximum aid to drivers and other people with sight who can quickly look at the screen while on the move. They have been set up to be operated as easily as possible by people with sight. In contrast, apps designed especially for blind people are carefully crafted to give extra information and easy control by touch gestures or audio menus rather than tools found at a glance. This can make quite a difference. For a lot of people, the Maps app or Google Maps will be quite sufficient to their needs as blind travellers. One major difference is that mainstream apps don’t volunteer information. You need to use VoiceOver and seek out what’s nearby or find out how far away places might be. Other than directions to destinations, sighted people typically wouldn’t appreciate being told about everything they’re passing as they move along. You’ll need to have a good grasp and proficiency with VoiceOver to make effective use of these apps while travelling. You’ll need to take your iOS device out frequently if you want to consult a mainstream app for information other than spoken directions that comprise a route.

Apple Maps:

The Maps app is designed by Apple and comes already on your device as part of the iOS operating system. It taps directly into data maintained and collected by Apple. It isn’t supported by ad revenue of any kind. It is a service meant to enhance the value of Apple products. For people concerned about privacy, this may be a better fit. You can view maps of areas and get directions to places. Apple is also integrating the Maps app with other apps like Uber and Lift to provide maximum convenience. It also supports Apple Pay and Siri. I recently heard a video which pointed out that the pricing information and ride booking procedures were better in the Apple Maps app than in Google Maps. In an effort to rival Google Maps, Apple is investing a lot of resources into collecting geographical data. This new data is slowly being added to the Maps app as it is ready. This includes indoor maps of popular places like shopping centres and airports.

Apple Maps lives up to its name. The screen is dominated by an interactive map. Blind people are actually able to explore this map by dragging their fingers along roads. They can also use the VoiceOver rotor to flick up or down between points of interest double-tapping on an item to open an information card about it. You can choose how much of the screen is taken up by these information cards. You also have current local weather, a tracking button and settings button.

The information cards have quite a bit of material on them drawn from various apps as well as the address. You will also find buttons to get directions, call or visit the web site of a place. If an app is associated with a place, there’s a button to get that. Apple really plays to that strength of integration. The information cards are where that’s most evident.

Moving your finger around the screen allows you to explore the area around you and even follow streets. You can also find out about any nearby points of interest via the rotor by turning it to the “points of interest” setting. Flick up or down between points of interest and double-tap on any which interest you. It is also possible to mark points of interest on the map.

The Maps app is a springboard for many other apps which can incorporate aspects of it into travel aids. This might allow an app focussed on restaurants to offer the ability to give guided directions to a restaurant or show a map of where it is. It also allows Siri to give guided directions to places of interest when asked. You might never go into the Maps app itself but will still very likely have made use of it without even being aware.

To find help using the Maps app, the first place to look is inside the user guide for your iOS device. You can get this for the Books app. I’ve given instructions on how to do this in the “Quickstart” section of this guide.

Google Maps

Google is and has always been the information king. This is leveraged heavily to provide maximum contextual knowledge about places. Apple initially was going to simply tap into Google’s data and pay for using the information on its products. However, the companies had a falling out and are now competing with each other in this particular sphere of interest. The map is almost secondary to the information in Google Maps. When you enter it, you’ll find a “Menu” button, a search field, and a bunch of further options including checking traffic, getting directions, and entering compass mode. Below, you’ll find a heading called Explore your local area name. In my case, Explore Mississsauga. Flicking right below that heading brings you to buttons which are categories of places. Double tapping on one will show you local places in that category. For instance, double-tapping on “coffee” will bring up places where you can enjoy coffee which are nearby. When you drill down like this, there will always be a “back” button to get up to a higher level.

If you double-tap on a location in Google Maps, Google finds and displays everything from the web site, buttons for guidance to the location, a button to call a place, and all kinds of reviews provided by users of the app or from other places. You can learn a great deal about restaurants and places of business just from what comes up on a place’s information screen. Don’t forget to scroll down with a three-finger swipe to the left. There are usually a number of screens full of information. More than you’d get on Apple Maps.

Google Maps has a lot of features including a compass mode as well as the ability to download a local map for offline use. If you use this latter option, be aware that some features depend on having a data connection and you’ll miss out on those if you’re completely offline. All of this is explained in the app itself. To find the extensive help available from within the app, double-tap on the “menu” button at the top left. Next, flick right until you come to “help and feedback”. Double-tap on that and then flick right until you get to “help” and double-tap this. You will arrive at a web page with extensive help and instructions.

If you use other apps in the Google ecosystem, you may find that they can interact with Google Maps when this is advantageous. This certainly includes any Google searches you’d perform with the Google app. This app is supported by businesses and advertising. You may encounter ads while using Google Maps if you explore the information provided thoroughly. Also, keep in mind that Google and Apple have different philosophies when it comes to privacy and sharing data. With Google, the data you generate is a product for businesses and other interested parties who have agreements with Google.

Google Maps also has facilities to make sharing information such as possible locations easier using social media, messaging, or email. This can make working out what restaurant to meet up with friends at easier. People can look at reviews, visit the web site and access the menus that restaurants make available online. This can be extra helpful for blind people since it provides a menu that you can examine without someone sighted having to read it to you. This way, when your friends are ready to order, you can be too.

Optimal Perspective;

Using Apps Specifically Designed For Blind Travellers:

While it’s certainly quite possible to make good use of the Apple and Google Maps options, there are alternatives which have been designed from the start with blind users in mind. They tap into the same sources of data as other mainstream GPS apps. However, they present information in ways to maximize the benefit to a blind traveller. For one thing, they announce nearby points of interest and other information automatically. You don’t have to constantly interact with the app to find out what’s around or how close you are to an important landmark. What’s more, the interfaces of these apps have been thought through very carefully to make them as easy as possible to use from the perspective of blind people. This can make a very big difference.

There are numerous GPS apps designed specifically for blind users. They all cost money unlike the mainstream apps we examined previously. There are a number of reasons for this disparity. For one thing, there are research and development costs associated with making these apps as easy to use and beneficial as they are. The potential user base for these apps is a lot lower than apps designed for sighted users. This reduces how attractive they are to advertisers and other ways that enable mainstream apps to be free to their users. There are often fees for developers of these apps to make use of the geographical data they tap into. Rather than having consumers pay an ongoing subscription, many developers choose to charge a higher price for their app up front and absorb the ongoing fees.

We’ll look at the two most popular apps in this category. Remember that there are other choices out there. We’ll briefly examine two of these in an app store expedition later on.

BlindSquare costs $54 Canadian in the app store. It’s a very popular option with a loyal following and frequent updates. Meanwhile, a more recent arrival from APH called Nearby Explorer bills itself as the premium navigation app. It can be yours from the app store for $109 Canadian. I won’t be going too deeply into how to operate these apps. In both cases, you can find a very detailed user guide right from within the app. The guides are also available online at the web sites for BlindSquare and Nearby Explorer. Go to: For help using BlindSquare. You’ll find all kinds of help including podcasts demonstrating the app, frequently asked questions, a link to contact the developers, and the user guide. You can visit American Printing House to get similar resources for Nearby Explorer. Go to:


BlindSquare is an app that leverages data from the FourSquare database. FourSquare is a social app and game which lets people check into places they visit in the real world telling people where they are. They can earn badges for visiting places often or visiting many places in areas being certain to check in using the Swarm or FourSquare apps when they’re present. They can also rate and review places. This data is tapped by BlindSquare to find points of interest so that it prioritizes more highly rated and popular locations when they’re in your area. It also draws data from the Open Street Maps service which provides information about streets, paths, intersections, etc. Combining these two sources gives a very useful picture of your surroundings which is constantly updated by people checking into places and uploading GPS coordinates.

Rather than taking up space on your iOS device with pre-loaded maps and a geographical database, BlindSquare frequently checks for data as you move and nothing is stored on your device other than points of interest which you create. As a result, BlindSquare takes up a small amount, around 100 MB of storage space, on your device. This small footprint makes BlindSquare quite manageable even on devices with low storage capacities. Especially considering what you’re getting in terms of capability. You absolutely need cellular data to make use of this app while travelling and not connected to WiFi. It regularly checks for new points of interest to report to you as you’re moving around.

Using BlindSquare, blind people will be alerted to points of interest which come within a radius and category of interest which they can specify. It is possible to filter what BlindSquare announces so that there is time to hear more of what’s around you that you’re actually interested in. For instance, you could have it only announce restaurants within your search radius. By default, all categories are active and BlindSquare tries to find the most popular and closest places to tell you about. Being able to focus in on what you want is a key capability.

Another special capability of BlindSquare is the ability to use 3d sound if you use a headset to sonically indicate the direction of points of interest it tells you about. As you walk along, you might hear a short beep sounding like it’s ahead and to the right. That will be immediately followed by an announcement of a donut shop which has been detected. There are many other short audio indicators which can clue you in to where things are whether or not you use a headset and perceive the 3d positioning. This has come in very handy for me when navigating the path around the man-made lake near my apartment. I have added in benches, large rocks, and other points of interest which make good landmarks and hearing the direction they’re in as I approach has enabled me to find them more easily after I’ve become disoriented.

You can also access and control most capabilities via an audio menu that you access with the play/pause button on your headset. This allows you to have your phone safe in a pocket and still control most of the tools BlindSquare offers. To access this menu, simply press the play/pause button of your headset or earbuds. A menu of options will then be cycled through and announced one by one. You merely use the play/pause button again to indicate your choice. This simple and consistent interface lets you easily adjust the radius, activate sleep mode while you stop and talk with someone, find out what’s around you, announce where you are, etc.

You can also use voice commands to control BlindSquare. This is similar to asking Siri or another digital assistant to do something. There is a list of commands specific to BlindSquare which you can find out by asking the app for help. Using this feature costs you command credits which you must purchase from within the BlindSquare app.

The app has been designed for maximum ease of operation using VoiceOver and was extensively tested by blind people. It can also give information from beacons which may be placed in or outside of venues. The CNIB community hub in Toronto has such a beacon. BlindSquare also has a “look around” feature which lets you point the top edge of your phone in a direction and find out what’s there. There are options to get weather information about a place, an option called “what’s around me” to announce nearby points of interest, a “nearby intersections” listing option, and many other options. For instance, when visiting a restaurant, you can call the place, get directions via a third-party app, view the menu, and much more. You get at these options by double-tapping on the location whether it’s in your favourites or in a list of search results. BlindSquare has also been designed to work with Braille displays. You would presumably wear a small Braille display in a sling bag having it on your chest or over a shoulder for easy access.

BlindSquare packs everything onto one screen and into menus accessed from that one screen. At the top is a toolbar featuring buttons to let you access tools, settings and other features. Beneath that row of buttons at the right edge of the screen is a radius adjustment slider. This lets you quickly increase or decrease the area around you being checked for landmarks or that will be used during searches. Below this are a plethora of category search options as well as a button giving access to announcement filtering. This lets you fine tune what is announced as you move around. The more familiar you are with the layout of this screen, the better your experience will be while on the move. It is absolutely possible to flick through all the options but so much quicker if you have a rough idea where they are and can touch a point on the screen that is close or right on the option. At the bottom of the screen are other options including the “Sleep mode” button near the bottom right. This lets you put BlindSquare to sleep during a conversation with someone or while you don’t want it checking for information and announcing things.

This approach means that you would go into the “Tools” button which you would then flick through to reach options such as “Look Around”. If you’re wearing a headset, you would more likely take advantage of the audio menu by using the “play/pause” button on your headset. Options would then be spoken and you’d just hit the button again when the one you wanted was spoken.

BlindSquare cannot plan routes and give turn by turn directions on its own. However, it has been designed to interact with other apps operating in the background while using another app like Ways, Google Maps, or the Maps app which comes on your iOS device, etc. These apps can be given coordinates by BlindSquare and can then plan routes and give directions. BlindSquare can also hook up with transit apps like Transit or Move It and give information such as bus stop and arrival times. Tying into these apps, BlindSquare can provide quite a comprehensive navigation service making things as easy as possible for blind people. That’s because it can run in the background while other apps have focus. You need to give permission for BlindSquare to be able to do this.

Example of Travel Using BlindSquare:

I find that BlindSquare is what I turn to for when I’m walking around my local area. Once I had the app, I got a mobility instructor to walk with me around the path which encircles the man-made lake near the building I live in. Around the path, there are a number of benches, garbage cans, paths leading in other directions, etc. As we came to suitable landmarks, I stood as near as possible to them and added them to BlindSquare. I didn’t set them as destinations so they don’t clutter up my menu of those. However, they are announced automatically as I approach them. I am therefore warned of both bridges on the path well before I come to them. These are somewhat narrow crossings of small creaks so I know to slow down and make certain there’s room for me to cross safely. There are enough landmarks recorded so that I can tell when I go off the path quite quickly. My apartment is also marked in BlindSquare so I can determine how to head towards it and return home.

July 1st is Canada Day. There are fireworks lit off in a park on the path around the lake. Prior to getting my first GPS system, I couldn’t attend these events on my own since the chance of getting lost was too great. However, I knew that with BlindSquare, I could find my way home even without sighted help. I had the confidence to head out into the night using BlindSquare which announced the landmarks I was passing while I walked along. I wore my Aftershokz bone conduction headset so I was alerted to landmarks while being able to listen for people or other things in my environment. The night was quite enjoyable and I had many interesting conversations. During these, I used the audio menu and activated sleep mode so that BlindSquare wouldn’t keep speaking while I was trying to engage in conversation. When it was time to move, I merely turned off sleep mode and quickly began receiving information from BlindSquare. When it was time to head home, I set BlindSquare to track the entrance to my apartment complex off of the path around the lake. It periodically announced how far away it was and in what direction as I walked. This information was enough to help me get back home and avoid straying off the circular path around the man-made lake.

When I have friends over, I often take them to a Symposia Cafe which is a restaurant in a local mall. BlindSquare announces the many landmarks along the route as I walk from my apartment. Once I’m there, I can also access the restaurant’s menu from inside BlindSquare. While this menu isn’t always kept as current as might be wished, it gives a good idea of what kinds of things are available. I can then put BlindSquare to sleep while having my meal and then wake it up when I leave the restaurant so it can help me navigate home.

Nearby Explorer:

The American Printing House for the Blind, APH, financed the development of this navigation app. It has been available on Android devices for quite some time and had garnered quite a good reputation before making its way to iOS. In order to offer better assistance, it takes a very different approach to BlindSquare. When users run the app for the first time, they are asked to download maps and geographical data for their area. So far, things are divided up by country. Nearby Explorer works in the US and Canada. The geographical data for Canada takes up around 2.5 GB of your device’s storage space. It is decompressed after being downloaded. You definitely want to be connected to WiFi when making this large download. However, you don’t need to do this very often as this massive database isn’t updated too frequently. There are millions of points of interest and associated information about them in this database. Navtek, the company responsible for maintaining this data, is highly regarded and widely used by GPS apps. This is one major reason why Nearby Explorer is twice the price of BlindSquare. This data can be used even when you don’t have cellular data or a WiFi connection. It’s always there.

Because all of this data is on your device, Nearby Explorer is able to offer route planning from within the same app rather than piggybacking from other apps. It provides very good information about upcoming intersections in timely fashion drawing on this data. Transit information and indoor exploration facilities via beacons are also made available from within the same app. This means that everything is easily accessed in a consistent manner.

the Nearby Explorer interface differs greatly from that of BlindSquare. At the top and bottom of the home screen are two toolbars with frequently used options. The top toolbar contains buttons for pause, compass, geobeam, radius, and level adjustment. The geobeam feature is like the “Look around” feature in BlindSquare. The bottom toolbar has buttons for streets, search, favourites and transit information. In between these toolbars are a number of indicators which can be set to automatically announce information or not as desired. For instance, you can have street numbers announced or not. All of these options have context menus providing even greater control of when they are spoken or not. This gives you the ability to quickly tailor the feedback from Nearby Explorer to best suit your current situation without ever leaving the home screen of the app.

There are four tabs across the bottom of Nearby Explorer for accessing less frequently use features like settings, help, and an accessible map view. This map view comes from integrating the Apple Maps view into the Nearby Explorer interface. This means that you can use Nearby Explorer’s home screen settings to determine what gets announced on the map. You can also do things like simulate being in a location, turning on a “watch” on a location on the map and then scroll around while hearing where you are relative to the marked location. You could also use features like the geobeam to explore areas before actually going there in person. People might well prefer Nearby Explorer’s tabbed approach which more thoroughly separates those less frequently used options giving them separate areas of focus. It can be a lot easier for people to master more features when things are consistently done in one app. Procedures are the same and the way things are presented is also. When you deal with different apps, be prepared for different philosophies of what’s important and how things are accessed. APH has thought through every piece of this app very carefully to maximize its usefulness for blind people specifically. That makes a big difference especially for people who might not be experienced enough to easily deal with too many different apps.

Reflections on Nearby Explorer:

The higher price of Nearby Explorer forces one to pause and ask whether it’s worth the money and hefty chunk of storage space the Navtek data takes up on your device. I think the answer ultimately boils down to personal preference, how much you pay for cellular data, and where you’re travelling. Personally, BlindSquare is powerful enough to meet my current needs. However, if I had to go to an unfamiliar city and find my way somewhere, I would appreciate having the Navtek data and other features of Nearby Explorer at my disposal. Beginners may find an app like this to be a bit overwhelming. You’ll want to spend time reviewing the instructions and examining the options before making serious use of this powerful navigation tool. I don’t find that this app does as well with off-road travel such as around a pedestrian path or in a park. I entered a bunch of landmarks in but could never get them to be called out as I passed them. Nearby Explorer tries to minimize the amount of chatter and doesn’t have the same approach to places which aren’t destinations that BlindSquare offers. However, it is able to give better information about intersections according to a friend who uses it extensively. If you needed to do a lot of urban travel in unfamiliar cities, Nearby Explorer would definitely shine and prove its worth. You would never be without geographical data even while offline. That’s a potential downfall of apps which don’t store geodata on your device. Nearby Explorer also makes it far easier to quickly change which information is spoken having everything you’d likely want to adjust rapidly right on its home screen. This includes such things as streets, transit information, and much more.

Don’t worry if, like me, you aren’t able to make good use of the virtual exploration capabilities. This app has a tremendous number of navigation tools. Find what helps you the most and master those options.

App Store Expedition:

Other Navigation Options:

For a couple of cheeper navigation apps designed specifically for blind people, consider Ariadne GPS or Lodestone. Ariadne features a map which is totally accessible with VoiceOver and can be explored by touch. This app has been around for a long time and hasn’t been updated recently. Another alternative which is still being updated as of 2018 is Lodestone. It is produced by blind developers and allows local information to be downloaded for offline use. It is much cheeper than the two apps I focus on below and was originally developed for Android smartphones. One particular advantage it offers is the ability to be far more specific about the categories and geographic regions you choose to store on your device. For devices with lower storage space, this is a very attractive capability giving the best of both worlds and making certain you’re never without local information.

Other apps to obtain are not made specifically for blind people but may help with travel. TripIt is an app for managing the details of a trip. You give it information such as flights and hotel bookings and everything is kept track of in that app. It offers numerous perks to frequent travellers and is said to be accessible for blind users.

For more local travel, consider obtaining the Uber app. Many taxi companies also have apps. These can help with ordering rides, make payment easier and more secure, and much more. These apps generally work well with VoiceOver and can be very useful.

Final Thoughts on Navigation:

It’s incredible to think of how much choice we have in terms of our approach to getting around. Even the more expensive options are cheeper than the devices designed for blind people that I’ve heard of by a long shot. If you take the time to get confident with using VoiceOver, you can have very thoughtfully designed accessible apps which do just as much as those more expensive devices. That iPHONE in your pocket can be a life saver if you get turned around out there. BlindSquare has certainly helped me get back home when I’ve gotten disoriented walking outdoors. GPS apps aren’t perfect but they open up a lot of possibilities for blind people. When you’re not using GPS apps for a while, it’s best to close them so they don’t continue needlessly using data and resources in the background while you don’t need them. I’ve had more than one occasion when I discovered I hadn’t done this and therefore had less remaining battery power than I thought. While travelling, please be mindful of how much hearing blockage and/or distraction you’re incurring. Earbuds and over-ear headsets block your natural hearing to a high degree. There are plenty of reports of fully sighted people wearing these and failing to hear oncoming cars and other sometimes lethal hazards. Personally, I use a bone conduction headset while travelling. I have the volume as low as possible while still being able to reliably hear information. I never ever play music while walking. The only thing I want to hear besides my environment and people around me are the navigational announcements from my GPS app of choice. Some people worry that their iOS devices might interrupt the announcements at a critical moment with something unrelated to travel like a notification that somebody tweeted you. I usually set my iPHONE on do not disturb while I’m travelling so nothing else intrudes on the announcements and operation of my GPS app. This mode has become very flexible in iOS12. You can add contacts to your favourites list so you won’t miss a message or call from people who are important to you even when in do not disturb mode. Don’t forget that while in this mode, your iOS device can still receive information. Just check the notification centre when you get where you’re going and find out anything you missed on the way. Normally, in the event that I need to make or answer a call, I’ll move to one side of the path and stand still until the conversation finishes. I take as much responsibility for my own safety and that of others as I possibly can. Safe travels, everyone.