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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.

Summary

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.

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