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"Hi, I'm Leasey, What Would You Like to Do?"

Improving Computing Efficiency
Introducing Leasey Advanced
Introducing LeaseyAudio and LeaseySticky Notes

Read About the Upcoming Leasey Tech Talk Presentation and Accessible Skype

I'm very much looking forward to Sight Village 2014, which begins tomorrow at the New Bingley Hall in Birmingham. It is the premiere exhibition in the UK with close to 100 exhibitors displaying the latest and greatest technology. This year, we at Astec have something very exciting to show. Meet Leasey: Learn, Enable, Advance – So Easy!

Leasey is ideal for the computer beginner, those who have a little knowledge and want to learn more and, even for the advanced computer user, she's an incredibly powerful lady!

The Background.

There are still very many people who do not know how to use a computer. When it is switched on, and the screen-reader announces it is running, what happens next? Where do you start? How do you send an email, write a document, make a Skype call or surf the internet? What about these cool DAISY or Audible books people talk about? How does that all work?

Leasey can metaphorically "hold a person's hand" from the moment the JAWS screen-reader is loaded. She brings into view a simple menu system, where the Up and Down Arrow keys are used to move through the options. Alternatively, first letter navigation can be used to reach the desired choice. When you get to the item you are wanting, press Enter.

But even with the most sophisticated of speech synthesisers which are quite "human sounding", if you're not familiar with synthetic speech it takes time for your ears to become atuned to what is being read from the screen. Leasey takes this all away. Her voice is spoken by a real human being. She will not only speak her menus and lots of guidance, but she also provides you with help, every step of the way. So, if you're in the Main Menu, and you don't know that you need to use the Arrow keys to move through, that's OK. Just press the Leasey help key. The help is extremely context sensitive appropriate not only to the majority of Windows controls, but also web page elements, Microsoft Office components and all of our many supported applications, of which more later.

Louise Keel, (my Co-Developer of Leasey), and I have thought very carefully about the way the help should be delivered. It is clearly ennunciated so as to leave no room for doubt as to what is being said, but Leasey is your friend, not to be patronising or coseting you, but to give you straightforward, friendly, easy-to-understand help. This is especially true on the internet which can be very confusing for new users. What if you are confronted with a multi-selection List Box on the internet? How do you work with that? Ask Leasey and she'll tell you.

Leasey gives you help and guidance as and when you need it. Move the cursor rapidly through menus or use quick key navigation? Leasey is right there with you, speaking the newly selected item. Do you want to stop Leasey talking? Simply press the Control key. Do you need Leasey to repeat what she last said? If so, press the Repeat key. Do you want to dispense with the voice guidance and switch to Leasey Advanced? No problem. It can be done with a simple keystroke, but Leasey's help system is always there to be used, putting you in complete control.

What Can Leasey Do?

Without exaggeration, I could write a book detailing what Leasey can do right now and what we have in mind for the future. But lets detail a few features which could not only be used for the beginner but which advanced users may also find helpful.

Leasey brings together a number of mainstream industry-standard applications, not only presenting easy access to them, but where appropriate modifying the interface in such a way that the new user can work with them. We give you a choice as to the programs to be used, and in most cases, have not created our own. If you develop an interface which is very structured as Leasey's beginner components are, it's important that you give people room to grow. Remember, that Leasey understands you may be a new computer user at first, but she wants you to expand your computing skills. So as you learn more, you will want to try new things and work with more programs. That is natural.

So, Leasey's Main Menu allows you to open a word processor, which can either be Microsoft Word or HJ Pad from Freedom Scientific if the former is not an option. For Email, we use Microsoft Outlook, or Windows Live Mail if Outlook is not installed. I hope you are beginning to get the picture.

When within one of the supported programs, you use Leasey's Application Menu system. Again, this is context sensitive and relative to the situation you are working within. The Application Menu is designed to give you access to the most common options you are likely to want to carry out in the situation you are facing.

As an example, when inside an Email message you are composing, she will give you options to "Open Leasey Connect", (a central repository for your Contacts including Email, Twitter usernames, Skype contacts and phone numbers), move to the Subject field, spell check the message, send the Email, and so on. But when you are within a message you have received, you will want different options, such as to reply to a message. Leasey is smart enough to know where you are and what you might want to do.

But as your skills increase, we want you to eventually walk away from the menu system, which is why the Leasey Help gives you the keystrokes necessary to do these things a little more quickly.

I've Never Been Taught How to Use the Keyboard. Can Leasey Help with that?

Absolutely she can. From the Main Menu, simply acccess the option "Improve Your Keyboard Skills". The amazing TypeAbility program, developed by David Pinto of Yes Accessible, will not only describe the keyboard layout, but you can work through 100 lessons thoroughly teaching you how to use the keyboard. There are speed tests, games, quizzes, and more, all presented in a fun and interactive way. I've never seen a typing tutor which is as thorough as TypeAbility. Take a look at this video and you can hear what other people think!

Special Leasey Features.

As I discuss later some of the features in Leasey Advanced, (for the power user), you will perhaps feel that Leasey is J-Tools "in a different dress". It would be very wrong of you to think that. J-Tools was a product I developed some years ago as a kind of swiss army knife for all your computing needs and included many tools which I hoped you would find helpful. Certainly some of those features have found their way into Leasey, but they've been considerably improved upon.

There are already some new features. Lets start with the LeaseyDiary.

I've no idea how many people have said to me over the years how difficult using a calendar is. But we all need to be reminded of important upcoming events. Certainly Microsoft Outlook can be used when you have the skill, but LeaseyDiary is a very simple calendar. She allows you to store an appointment and there is a very comprehensive Notes area to store unlimited text appropriate to the appointment, such as a meeting agenda.

When viewing diary entries, you move through the months of the year presented in a list form. As you move through, you will hear whether appointments exist for a given month. You can then examine them and of course, read and even edit the Notes. Have you ever had long-kept appointments that it was too much hassle to delete cluttering up your calendar? With Leasey, you can delete them with one simple keystroke.

We hope to be able to make it possible to import calendar appointments from Microsoft Outlook if that is what people would like to do. Incidentally, you can do the simple things too, for example hear the current date or insert the date into your document such as a letter.

LeaseyClock is exactly what it says. You can hear the time, set alarms, use a countdown timer or the powerful stopwatch. Of course, for the advanced user, both LeaseyDiary and LeaseyClock have keyboard shortcuts associated with them so as to bypass Leasey's menu system, as does probably my favourite feature of the moment, LeaseySearch.

What Is LeaseySearch?

In her menu system, Leasey gives you the ability to listen to DAISY Talking Books (maybe from RNIB or Bookshare), and to hear books downloaded from the Audible website. So it seemed sensible to give people the ability to choose what they would like to listen to a little more easily than is currently the case.

LeaseySearch at the moment allows you to search the RNIB Talking Book and Braille catalogues, the Bookshare catalogue and also the amazing selection of books from Audible. She will ask you for the author and title of the book you would like to search for. She first examines the websites to ascertain if results matching your criteria exist, and, if they do, she'll bring them back to you so you can read the publisher's summary or place an order. No need to go to the provider's website, find an edit field, type in what you want, press Enter, and have all the problem of finding where the results start. You can do it quickly from whichever program you are working in.

We hope to extend LeaseySearch to include other providers of books together with maybe online stores and services.

Leasey Advanced.

While there are more specialist features and those for new users, lets turn our attention for a moment to Leasey Advanced.

There are many features allowing you to make the most of your computer. LeaseySelect gives you the ability to easily highlight text in documents, Email messages and web pages. Support is currently in place for Notepad, Wordpad, Microsoft Word, Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, the JAWS Results Viewer, Adobe Reader to name most of them. There's probably one or two I've forgotten.

LeaseyPoints has the potential to be of huge advantage to people who are studying and in the workplace. Much more than a regular bookmark, you can set up multiple LeaseyPoints for each Microsoft Word document for instant retrieval.

LeaseyPoints however are particularly helpful on the internet. Not only can they immediately through keystrokes take you to required parts of web pages, but they can also react to specific text events input by the user. So, if you are working in a browser-based application, and you want to be alerted when a particular phrase is present, Leasey can do that for you.

There are many other features including LeaseyWeb (for HTML composition), LeaseyCuts (for storing shortcuts to web pages, documents and folders), and LeaseyNotes for those long text passages you need to type on a regular basis. Oh, and I forgot to mention a feature we hope to implement, LeaseyCloud. You can store your settings on LeaseyCloud and download them to another computer of your choosing.

So What Is The Future for Leasey?

Well, first, you can come and meet her at Sight Village this week if you are visiting the exhibition. We would be very pleased indeed to welcome you to the Astec stand! Please remember that, while we are dying to show Leasey to you and want you to be as excited as we are about her, this is a prototype of the program. We hope the first version of Leasey will be launched in November with pricing information available at the time of launch.

But as for the future, there is no limit. We have a plan for the next six months or more of features we would like to see included, and of course many more will we hope be driven by potential user input. But very realistic examples would be the introduction of a radio and audio CD player, Skype, support for iTunes, Spotify, Amazon's Kindle and more. Louise and I together with the team at Astec think creatively. We're quite tired of hearing what isn't accessible and what we're lead to believe we can't do. We're more interested in what we can do, and, through Leasey, encourage other people to use the computer to its full potential.

In closing, I should say that in addition to comprehensive written documentation, Leasey will come equipped with a Getting Started tutorial in DAISY format, talking you through many of Leasey's features together with important Windows concepts. And of course, because it is in DAISY format, you can hear it on your portable player or indeed by using Leasey herself!

Whether you're a computer newby or a power user, Leasey could be your friend for life!

Can Spotify be Top of the Pops?

I thought I would write a blog post responding to the AudioBoo from Brian Dalton, in which he shared his memories of the UK charts from previous years, together with discussing the recent announcement that music from streaming services such as Spotify would form part of the chart's make-up as from July of this year. I was really glad Brian posted his audio as it set me reminiscing and thinking.

I am so glad that I was able to enjoy the charts for most of the 70's and all of the 80's. I first became aware of the chart in late 1972. I think the first songs I can remember are those such as David Cassidy's "How Can I Be Sure" and slightly later, Carly Simon's "You're So Vein". A few months after I began listening to it at 6 O'Clock each sunday, one of my uncle's would test me on the songs I had heard. He had a good record collection, and he would play me a couple of notes from a song and I needed to identify it. I would shout out in my three year-old London-sounding voice, "That's Slade with My Friend Stan!", or, "It's the Sweet with Ballroom Blitz!", both popular hits of the day.

So I was always glued to the radio each Sunday and tried never to miss the chart. When I listen back to those tapes now, I do think that a lot of attention and skill went into presenting 20 songs in one hour, together with mixing in jingles to denote chart positioning, new entries and climbers. I haven't heard any of today's DJ's present a chart countdown with as much precision as I heard back then.

Tom Brown was the host I grew up with and was the man I looked forward to listening to. Tommy Vance in the 80's also brought a special brand of presentation to the chart, because he would tell you things about the songs you were hearing, such as artist biographical information. He would also play alternative mixes of songs, such as those appearing on the B side of a single or the 12 inch mix.

As I grew up, particularly in my early teens, I began to extensively study the charts from previous years, back as far as 1952, the year of the first singles chart in the UK. I would read as many books about the subject as I could, and often referred to the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, to learn where particular songs reached on the chart.

Speaking of records, Brian mentions that wonderful smell of a new single as you took it out of its sleeve. Ah yes, I remember that too, and you certainly knew when you entered a record shop by the smell. Similarly, I had this fascination with record labels, and I was able to tell by the feel of a single the label of the record. I could easily tell an Epic record from one on the CBS label for example. Epic records had a roughened area towards the centre of the B side and so I was easily able to differentiate those from another label, which was good because quite a lot of the groups I liked were on Epic. CBS records had a small inner circle in the centre of the record, and picture discs also had a unique feel of their own!

Like Brian D, after 1989, I lost interest in the charts for most of the 90's. The music really didn't appeal to me, and although we do have a large 90's music collection, we don't play it particularly often. But I am enjoying a lot of today's music. I think there are a lot of songs with good lyrics and melodies. For example, I do really like Jason Durelo's song "Trumpets", it's a song which catches your attention from the opening lines! At one point, almost every week we were obtaining songs from the chart last year, there was usually something we liked.

What do I think of streaming services being included in the chart? I have mixed feelings about it. Brian D said that, as a child, when he would buy a single he liked the fact that he was contributing to the chart countdown. Although I don't want to shatter Brian's childhood memories, he may not have been, since not all the stores were selected for chart stats. But returning to the point, when you stream a song, financially you are not really contributing in the same way as Brian describes are you? Spotify and some similar services are available for free, (unless you want to pay for added services), so you don't quite get that same satisfaction of financially contributing.

The other thing I have some difficulty with is the poultry amount issued in royalties to the artists by the streaming services. People really cannot live on that kind of income, and the only way really to increase that surely is through the actual purchase of songs.

So on balance, I feel that the more we can encourage people to buy singles and albums, the better, and so I am to some extent against the inclusion of this data. On the other hand, like it or not, this is one of the ways people are listening to songs now, which is disappointing. People are streaming and not necessarily buying. So if that is the case, the chart has to move with the times and include it. Incidentally, a song has to be streamed 100 times to equate to one purchase of a single.

There's another thought too. At least the inclusion of such streaming services theoretically paves the way for lesser known artists to maybe get themselves into the chart. It's unlikely, but it is possible. Indeed if you look at the most streamed songs of 2014 so far as against the most purchased songs of this year, the results are really quite similar.

So there it is. I thought I'd share my thoughts, and it would be interesting to hear other AudioBoo posts on this subject.

JAWS for Windows, Much More Than a Tool for the Workplace

It was in December of last year when I began to hear more than the usual amount of computer keyboard clicks from the other side of the room. I also heard exclamations such as, "Oh well done Fikey", or, "oh how could you roll in something bad!" I wondered what on earth was going on, and so I asked Lulu what she was doing.

Lulu at this point had quite a lot of time on her hands and wanted something to occupy her. She was looking for a multimedia role-playing game so as to have fun and possibly interact with fellow players. Lulu has a high level of intelligence, so the game should get progressively more challenging and should change on a regular basis with new tasks to be achieved, resulting in her thinking about what each problem was as it arose and how to resolve it. The game should not include any element of combat.

However for some years, Lulu has experienced severe migraines and additional health difficulties. So the game also had to be something that could be played not involving too many sounds or music. She could then just play it when she was able to.

It was on the social media site Twitter that she read about Furry-Paws at Put very simply, the game allows you to care for (and breed) dogs, while entering them into competitions. The game has its own currency which can be earned. Dogs progress through the game and, as specific levels are reached, varying attention is needed. Starting with one basic kennel on a small piece of land you can work to build the ultimate facility encompassing multiple kennels and training areas along with optional landscaping features to make your property look attractive. There are also rare creatures and items to trade and collect, and the game’s social element means that, by using the chat room, user guilds and Canine Associations, a player could easily make friends or get help if needed.

So, Furry-Paws seemed to meet all of Lulu's requirements while having the added bonus that the game could be suspended periodically if she was unable to play for a few days. Moreover, the game is not like those found within apps relating to "Virtual Pets". While the game is played in real-time, when the dogs have been cared for during the day, the work is done and attention can be given to them the following day.

Over time, Lulu accumulated a large number of dogs, some of which gained the "Best of Breed" status within the entire Furry-Paws community which is large and of course consists predominantly of sighted players. She began to very much enjoy playing the game and caring for her dogs. Of course she mentioned Furry-Paws on Twitter, and we found that some of our friends and followers then began to play, adding to the significant number of visually impaired people who were already playing the game.

The Furry-Paws site is extremely accessible to screen-readers and the standard HTML navigation techniques could be used. However, as the number of dogs grew to 250, (not an unusually large number in Furry-Paws game playing terms), it was obvious that a lot of keystrokes were having to be used. Lulu has limited hand movement, and in addition to experiencing fatigue after pressing upwards of a thousand keystrokes in a gaming session, she was missing out on vital information displayed on the web page which otherwise needed to be located (and navigated to) using the Arrow keys.

To solve these problems, I thought it would be a good idea to put my JAWS scripting skills to good use and help her. I already had a Furry-Paws account. As Lulu is my Fiancee, obviously I took an interest in what she was doing and wanted to share in something that she was obviously enjoying. Actually my Kennel and surrounding area are in no way on the scale of Lulu's, but I am getting there and it is fairly respectable.

I set about creating the JAWS scripts which would provide keystrokes to frequently accessed areas of the site, output spoken alerts and audio cues to denote important events which occur during game play, and set focus to relevant areas of the page depending upon the task being carried out, so that the text could easily be examined more slowly if required.

Over time, the scripts developed with more and more features and keystrokes. Soon, between us the ideas started to flow and we improved the functionality. I think the end result is a program which not only considerably lessens the number of keystrokes to be used, but it also outputs important information which the sighted user would be immediately drawn to when each page loads.

We realised from the outset that we needed to be careful when creating features for the scripts. It would be all too easy for JAWS to "take over", work out solutions to problems with dog care, make decisions based upon what it finds and resolve those difficulties. That completely destroys the point of the game and does not allow the player to think for his or herself.

A Keystroke Help system soon followed. There are quite a lot of keystrokes to remember, but you soon get to know them if you play the game regularly. I decided that the best approach was to divide them into categories with hyperlinks, where activating each link would take you into a different category of keystrokes. Pressing ALT+Left Arrow, (the standard command to move to the previous page within Internet Explorer), would take the user back to the main index. Each keystroke is also hyperlinked, so as you learn the different key combinations which can be pressed, they can be activated through the help system so as to pass them through to the website. This technique should help users while in the initial stages of learning.

It became clear to us that many other JAWS users may well also benefit from, (and enjoy using), this functionality we had added. We began to get quite excited about what the scripts offered and some people were asking if we were going to share them. This we decided to do. I contacted the developer of the site, explained what we were doing and that we would like to release the scripts for use by the public at no cost. She approved the project which we were very pleased about.

In conclusion, I think apart from the obvious benefits of the scripts for Furry-Paws users, there are two important points which should be drawn out. First, many applications even in the workplace are becoming browser-based, perhaps using Microsoft Internet Explorer, and I think what we've arrived at here is a good template for providing spoken alerts and sounds to assist with those kinds of applications. The use of these scripts proves it can be done, saving a good deal of time for the user in the process.

But more importantly, there is a belief (or a preconception) among some people that JAWS is primarily a tool to be used in the workplace. It isn't. It is a screen-reader for whatever a person wants to use it for, and that very much includes having fun and relaxation. Again, these scripts, I hope, demonstrate that.

So here we are. Version 1 of the Furry-Paws scripts can be downloaded from our website and we hope that they may inspire others to play, or indeed assist those who already do. Please activate this link to move to the Furry-Paws script page, from which you can read the full documentation, hear a comprehensive audio demo of the scripts in action together with downloading the scripts themselves.

If you have any comments or suggestions regarding this project, please do Email and we would love to read your comments. Alternatively, (of course using the Furry-Paws website), you can message either Think ComputerGeek (#1175395) or Eden Louise (#1170116) .

Knowing What is Good About the iPhone and What is Not, a Response

I read with some interest the article from the National Federation of the Blind by Curtis Chong, Knowing What is Good About the iPhone and What is Not. As I visit people each week, the subject of accessible phones and devices for independent living almost always arises and as a user of the iPhone and iPad for several years, I'm always interested to read the viewpoints of well respected professionals in the Access Technology arena.

I was disappointed however with the overall tone of the article. The NFB from what I understand is a hugely influential organisation and so is ideally placed to promote products and independent living skills to blind people. I do not feel this article does that.

It is fair to say that Mr Chong points out a number of advantages of using an iPhone, but the clear message coming from it is what is not good about it and that people should be cautious prior to purchasing one.

I firmly believe the iPhone has always been, and still is, a game changer for visually impaired people. We have to accept that phones with very tactile buttons are a thing of the past unless you want something which contains extremely basic functionality, such as to make calls or have a predetermined set of numbers to call specific people. To some that maybe a disadvantage. But on the flipside, what touch screen phones do give us is liberating. It's own built-in apps, and those purchased from the App Store, allow for much more than this. The iPhone promotes independent living, enhances mobility and getting around, allows for printed matter potentially to be read without sighted assistance, makes it possible for a person to have objects identified by volunteers, it's a vehicle for listening to books, and so on.

I will not respond to each and every disadvantage Mr Chong writes about. But I will say this. The one thing he doesn't talk about is consistency. All iPhones work in the same way irrespective of the model. I was working with a low vision user a few weeks back who was struggling to see the screen content. Within a few seconds we had VoiceOver enabled and he is one very happy customer. If I see someone struggling, and they have an iPhone, I know I can help them. I don't need to install anything special, and family members who have similar devices can also enable VoiceOver, practice what is possible, and then help the blind person get acquainted with it if needed. That's a real advantage. I also point friends and family members of the client to this very helpful video which shows how a person can use the device without sight.

But consistency goes further. There is a consistent layout in terms of the gestures and overall layout of most apps and facilities. So, assuming the apps themselves are accessible, and the blind person is aware of the gestures to be used, he or she can easily download an app which would be useful and immediately have some idea as to how he or she is going to go about navigating it.

In fairness, there is some merit as to some of the disadvantages Mr Chong writes about. But I believe to every one of those there is a solution. For example, for people with limited motor skills or dexterity, additional difficulties undoubtedly are imposed. But apart from the fact that the concept of the VoiceOver gestures is well thought out, Braille input apps together with external portable keyboards can be purchased which make for very easy text entry, not to mention the ability to simulate many of the gestures such as the "tapping quickly" Mr Chong refers to in point 10 of the Disadvantages.

With each version of the operating system, (I O S), the Siri voice input system is becoming more intelligent and voice recognition is improving. While initially making calls could be troublesome, Siri could be used for this, thereby allowing the making of calls efficiently. But I would suggest once the geography of the keypad is learned, making calls can be achieved fairly quickly.

Learning a new skill is always going to be difficult and certtainly I agree that the person needs to approach the learning of the iPhone with the expectation that it will take time. This is the case with anything new.

I would lastly like to respond to point 7 of the Disadvantages section of the article where Mr Chong states that the device may contain more functionality than the person wants. But once the person is aware of the range of additional things it can do, maybe that original perception and need would change. I've already mentioned the ways in which the iPhone can assist with independence, but it also breaks down potential social isolation which may be present. access to Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Face Time and other methods of sharing with family and friends break down this barrier together with the opportunity of making new friendships.

In summary, by all means read the article and, notwithstanding some of the advantages Mr Chong mentions such as the device can be adapted to play books from the Library of Congress which have no value outside the US, those he advocates are worth considering. But I would suggest that any article such as this should be considered within the context of many other articles and blog posts, and that careful consideration should be given to what it says. This is just one viewpoint among many and it is always a good idea to canvas the opinion of other blind people, and read other blog posts, to gain a thorough overview.

BlindSquare - the Intelligent Child of the A T Community!

Now She's Two Years Old, She's Able to Walk and Talk!

Since I wrote my last blog post concerning RNIB's Navigator app for I O S devices, (a UK- based release of the Seeing Eye app from Sendero), I've been introduced to BlindSquarepriced $29.95 in the App Store, about £17 UK.

BlindSquare is a navigational tool. It is designed to give you information as to what is close to you within the vicinity. The distance is in accordance with a radius which you specify. For example, if you are looking for a store or public building which you think is very close, you narrow the radius value. To obtain details of places further afield, just widen it. It uses Foursquare's enormous database of Points of Interest which anyone can contribute to, so there is a good chance you'll find the place you want to visit together with new ones you didn't previously know about.

But it can do much more than that. BlindSquare can tell you the weather conditions (either locally or within any location in the world you search for), add a place as a Favourite and tell you the location of places according to the direction you are facing. There are many more features making this product a real pleasure to use.

Yesterday, BlindSquare celebrated its second birthday and as a result, the developer and key personnel behind the scenes hosted a radio show on the internet and also released version 2.0 of the app with some major enhancements. This is a free upgrade for existing users.

She Looks Good and Sounds Great!

What has become obvious to me is two things. First, there is a primary developer of the app who does most of the coding. Clearly, this gives it a good level of consistency and as a consequence the screens are completely accessible, uncluttered and easy to work with. They are very appealing visually too.

Second, BlindSquare has a large community of visually impaired beta testers and "product designers" from around the world. By this I mean they let the developer know what works well, suggest features and create sounds. Andre Louis for example has been instrumental in creating the sounds and in so doing has applied his usual high level of creativity. As a result, the sounds not only complement the speech prompts but also attempt to emulate the task you are trying to achieve. Those relating to where you are located in accordance with compass directions are particularly impressive when BlindSquare's "Look Around" mode is active. Each event has a sound associated with it, which can be individually enabled or disabled according to the user's preference.

BlindSquare speaks in a range of languages, not surprising since it has users in many countries. The voice output is delivered using the I O S voices already installed onto the device or through Acapela voices which are optionally downloadable through the app.

Getting to Know Her!

There are several points worthy of special note.

1. The Instructions are some of the most well written I've ever seen for a product and I am generally quite critical of documentation. They are available online or via the Help system built into the app which is easy to follow as it is divided into levelled headings. They are very detailed and help you to get up and running quickly.

2. Social media is a focal point of BlindSquare too as you can interact with Foursquare - a social media tool allowing the public to find places of interest in a given area, obtain address and phone number details and read tips others have left. Checking in also adds points and unlocks mayorships and other badges.

Although ridiculed and heavily criticised by some, it is a fun game. It is good to see where you are on the leaderboard within the context of your friends on Foursquare, it is interesting to see the different places the people you follow have visited, and there is a safety element too, since checking into places lets friends and family see you are OK.

Foursquare seem to change their app design frequently, and particularly at the moment it is in a state of transition to two apps which serve different needs. I often read tweets from people who state that the accessibility has changed or where the app is difficult to use. BlindSquare has an advantage here. The app uses Foursquare's Application Program interface to grab the data from it and present it in such a way that it is easy for blind people to quickly get the information they need. For example since BlindSquare is self-voicing, it intelligently and automatically announces the fact that you've checked in, where you are on the leaderboard and other useful information. When checking in, users make a conscious decision as to whether they just wish to check into Foursquare, Like a place, Dislike it, or post to Twitter and Facebook. The way it has been done is well thought out and provided the API remains available in its current form, BlindSquare is the ideal vehicle for us to take part in the mainstream phenomenon which is Foursquare.

It is possible to share your location without checking into Foursquare, even using text messaging. We like that feature a lot too. It is worth repeating that Favourite places can be added to BlindSquare without the need to create them in Foursquare and of course they are private to you.

3. Added yesterday was an engenius remote solution. Ever worried about carrying your phone in your hand if it is wet? Do you feel vulnerable exposing your iPhone to the world? BlindSquare have conquered this through the new remote feature. You can keep your phone in your pocket or handbag and use a bluetooth remote or even your Apple headset which came with your iPhone to control various features of BlindSquare.

The concept surrounds the buttons to manipulate the playing of music on the phone, such as to play, stop, rewind and fast forward. Press buttons on the remote to interrogate BlindSquare as to your current location, increase or decrease the radius, and many other functions via an audio menu. You can skip through the audio menu quickly if you want to find and activate a specific item. I should say Looking for the right button on a touch screen while walking can be difficult or even dangerous in some situations, as it can distract your attention from other clues around you that help you navigate. So this feature should prove to be invaluable and clearly demonstrates the developing company's respect for giving blind people useful information as to their surroundings while not compromising safety. Indeed, when you first launch the app, clear warnings are given concerning the fact that the product is a navigational tool and cannot take the place of mobility aids such as a dog or cane.

She Walks Tall!

BlindSquare provides very full information as to what is around, including Points of Interest and street names. The Points of Interest types can be filtered according to your taste. The app also delivers your current location and, usefully, when you approach one of your favourite places. GPS accuracy can now be determined by tapping a button at the bottom of the screen. Announced in feet or metres, this will also help in determining your proximity to a desired place. Ideally, the back of the phone should be positioned in the direction you wish to travel. Just place the phone in your pocket if necessary and all should be well.

The alert sounds indicate that useful information is upcoming. Places can be searched for by name or postal code, entering text via the phone's keypad, Flexi or MBraille. That's clever! You can also browse by a number of predefined categories.

BlindSquare will automatically provide navigational information as you walk or if you are in a vehicle. However, it does not offer built-in spoken turn-by-turn navigation. If you are in walking distance to your destination, you can use its Tracking feature to let BlindSquare announce direction and distance periodically. If turn-by-turn directions are required for a longer distance, BlindSquare interacts with a number of third-party GPS apps. These include Navigon, TomTom, Google Maps and others. Details of your location (and that which you wish to visit) are sent to a supported third-party navigation app installed on your device. This means you can hear both the turn-by-turn directions of your navigation app and BlindSquare’s information about your environment. Once your third-party navigation app has started, BlindSquare will also track your destination, announcing its distance and direction as you advance towards it.

Shaking your phone will output precise details of what is around you, your location and inviting you to shake the phone again to check into the nearest place.


I would highly recommend BlindSquare. As one listener put it on the birthday radio show yesterday, (broadcast in English and simultaneously in Russian on a sister stream), it is fantastic that as blind people we have so much access to information about the environment. You can learn a lot about where you live just by walking around and letting BlindSquare talk to you, complementing the mobility skills you have.

If you would like to be in with a chance of winning a copy of BlindSquare, tune into Jonathan Mosen's Radio show on Sunday 18 May, 2 PM Eastern, 7 PM UK, where he has three copies to give away.

A useful support Email list, Twitter and Facebook availability can be found on the BlindSquare Instructions page.

An excellent short Podcast demonstrates some of the new BlindSquare 2.0 features.

My Initial Thoughts on the RNIB Navigator App

At lunchtime, I took the new RNIB Navigator app for a "test drive". Given I have more to say about it than can be accommodated in a tweet of 140 characters, I thought I would write a quick blog post with a few observations.

As background, I've been told by Rehabilitation Officers I have excellent mobility skills. I feel a dog provides the best form of mobility for me, but I am now working well with a long cane and am very reliant upon echo location which is essential for getting to some of the places I need to go to locally. In this context, I am very familiar with the names of streets in the area, how they relate to each other and the public places on them.

With all that in mind, I tested the app today and overall was impressed with how it worked. As you would expect from an app developed for blind people, it is completely accessible. I found all the Buttons convenient to access and the prompts from VoiceOver were excellent and were automatically spoken according to the settings I had previously activated. I'm very glad RNIB have made it available.

In the past, I have used GPS technology in a pedestrian mode and particularly in cars as I travel widely every week and I like to know the places we are passing and how long it will be until we reach our destination, that kind of thing. I look forward to trying Navigator in that context this week.

However, from a pedestrian perspective, I found Navigator to be as good as anything else I've tried, and the best way I can describe that is "adequate". I use it as a guide only as to notify me what's around, how to get from one location to another and so on, but I don't expect it to be precise. Navigator, for me, is not precise. It often advised me to turn into streets when I had already done so for example. So in summary, I wouldn't use it to locate a place exactly but more as a means of telling me when I was in the vicinity. To say again, this is typical of GPS products I've tried and because I have the skills I do, I can work with that.

There are a few other points I should make.
1. I've read a lot on Twitter about this being a new app and so the feature set may be lacking and we should bare with the developers. That is not how I see this. The model adopted is the Seeing Eye US-based app from Sendero, which has I think been around for about a year now. The new part about this is the adoption of it by RNIB and as a consequence its usefulness within the UK. To repeat, the technology used is the same and I would have thought therefore it ought to be a little more sophisticated.

2. As an example, the ability to store a favourite location other than your home address does not seem to be included, and that surprised me. One possible work around could be to check in at the place on Foursquare, as this is one of the databases used for Points of Interest. But this means interacting with another app, and I have also read that Foursquare are possibly removing the ability for a person to "check in" within the near future, or at the very least there may be a separate app for this. I don't use Foursquare these days and so I am not as up to speed on this as I should be. But returning to the point, I would have thought the ability to store a favourite point of interest or location would have been fairly fundamental. At the very least this would have helped Rehab Officers in terms of assisting blind people to mark specific locations either en route or when one has reached a frequently used destination. I'm sure there will be a logical reason as to why favourite places are not included however. But there has to be a better method of marking often visited locations rather than checking in on Foursquare as this could potentially pose as a security risk I would have thought.

3. Despite what I've said, I see using Foursquare for points of interest as fairly important, such as locating public buildings. The other method of selection for P O I's is the Tom Tom database, which does not include all locations I would expect in this area. I wonder how this facility will fair when Foursquare services are redesigned later this year? It will be interesting to see. Lets hope Navigator will still be able to interact with it.

As I say, I'm really pleased that RNIB have the app available and I'll certainly keep using it for the moment and see what develops. Thanks to them again for bringing the Sendero product to the UK.

SoundTaxi Scripts for JAWS

Today I had occasion to use the audio file conversion program SoundTaxi. I quickly created some JAWS scripts for it which contain the following:

  • Shortcut keys to activate many of the menu options.
  • Additional spoken prompts and reading of the static text when in Settings.
  • Hotkey help.

In addition, when in the list view of files being converted, press Control+Insert+1 through to 3 to hear status information.

If anyone wants the scripts they are Free to Download! They have been tested for JAWS versions 11 through to 15. If they work for you, fantastic! Enjoy!

Spotify Accessibility with JAWS

Despite it being available on mobile devices, there are some of us who do like to use Spotify on the computer. I've certainly come to enjoy listening to it particularly to preview new music before purchasing it.

During this past week, Spotify appear to have updated their version of the software to V0.9.8.296 which rendered the text on the screen so it was no longer accessible to JAWS, the screen-reader I primarily use. A set of JAWS Scripts for Spotify is available for a small cost. I don't use them personally as I chose to script the application myself. But plenty of people do. Whichever solution used however, the text does not seem to be available on screen.

I did get a primitive solution working for the latest release but wanted to go back to my old scripts. This would mean, for the moment, going back to the previous version, V0.9.7.16. Here is how I did it.

  • Uninstall your old version of Spotify.
  • Download a previous version of Spotify from this page.
  • Run the installer but do not log in.
  • Download the Files I have created housed in a zipped archive.
  • From the "Run" dialog in Windows, (accessed by pressing the Windows Key+R), type %appdata% and press Enter.
  • Browse to the Spotify folder and press Enter.
  • Paste the files from the zipped archive into this folder, preventing the program from auto updating.
  • Run Spotify and enjoy.

I hope that helps someone.

Accommodating Specific Requests in Studio Scripts

Hi everyone

Most likely on Saturday, I will be posting a new build of the StationPlaylist JAWS scripts. I am going to keep the existing set on the website as well because we know that
one is stable and very good. But I’ve made some significant internal adjustments in this latest one, so you should only download this upcoming build if
you are affected by one of the following issues.

Accommodated a customer request, he wanted all the new script functionality to be available to him for Studio V5 as well as 5.01, this is now done.

Those few people who have problems with not getting track notification endings, or where various functions return 0 values such as remaining track time,
have had a fix applied. This is a StationPlaylist Studio API limitation on some machines. There is a special mode to activate which I will detail in the
release notes if this happens to you.

Problems typing the grave accent character as reported by a user. You now press the grave accent sign twice quickly to type the sign into your text,
pressing it once acts as usual.

Two problems relating to the Wavestreaming server provider. We did obtain a Wavestreaming account with AutoDJ specifically for the testing.

First, the encoder connection isn’t being acted upon when using the SAM encoders. In fact this is not a problem related to jaws as some people believe, but I’ve applied a workaround nonetheless. 

New feature, ability to stop and start the AutoDJ on Wavestreaming accounts. You need to tell jaws what the starting URL is, the stop URL and the password.
There is a wizard to guide you through this training process. Once jaws knows this information the AutoDJ can be started and stopped with two keystrokes.

I think that covers just about everything. More over the weekend.


StationPlaylist 4.33 and JAWS

Hi everyone

Since I launched the JAWS scripts for SPL Studio 5.01 particularly, something has become fairly clear, which is that there are some machines where JAWS and Studio do not interact well together for a variety of reasons.

I have therefore made the decision to prepare a set of scripts for SPL Studio V4.33, for those who wish to use them. In terms of features, these scripts will be almost comparable to the 5.0 and 5.01 scripts, although clearly there are some things I will not be able to implement, simply because of new enhancements which 5.0 gives as a native program. But certainly I have done my best to bring them into line.

The 4.33 scripts will contain features such as the ability to set focus to the list of tracks when the Enter key is pressed, enhanced arrow key support, newer sounds, more reliable reading when in the playlist viewer, revised documentation, and so on.

The licence to obtain the SPL Studio 4.33 scripts will work in the same way as for the 5.0 and 5.01 scripts, that is 25 dollars for a year's support and upgrades. Anyone who has a licence for the 5.0 series will be able to obtain the 4.33 set at no additional cost.

For optimum performance, I still do recommend SPL Studio 5.01 because the feature set is greater, and on all of our machines, including those we use for broadcasting on a permanent basis, we've experienced absolutely no problems at all. But as a fall-back position, the additional 4.33 set of scripts will be available. I'll post again as and when the scripts are ready, but given I've been working hard on them recently I don't expect the wait to be too long.

Have a great day!


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