The era of the seeing iPhone is here with apps for the visually impaired
The blind man enters the New York City subway station at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, slapping his cane against the pavement, which is wet from a sudden rush of rainfall. A portly guy selling papers at the entrance spies the blind man preparing to descend the staircase, and he yells out, “hey, HEY! Watch,” and touches his arm to guide him downward. “Thanks!” the blind man replies brightly, pushing the palm of his hand onto the railing. The air becomes hotter as he goes into the belly of the earth, he hears the sound of a train coming by, a downtown 4 train headed for Grand Central Station, where he’ll get off to go to work.
The last clack of the walking stick—WHAP!—indicates the final step, and he moves slightly to the right, because he remembers that’s where he’ll find the doors to enter the train. The car crammed full of people, he moves with a deft knowledge of where everything’s oriented, sliding around bodies with one hand in front of him as a guide. He eases into a corner seat and pulls out his iPhone 6, stuffing a pair of headphones attached around the back of his neck into his ears. He closes his eyes and taps the screen with two fingers. Again, with more vigor this time.
“How do you see the numbers?” a woman sitting next to him asks loudly, causing him to pull out his earbuds.
“I have sound.”
The blind man is Michael Faillace. He’s a lawyer at a firm that’s got his name on the front door. He was born in New York but spent most of his formative years in Colombia. He was sighted, then. But when he was 18 years old, he found out he had a tennis ball-size brain tumor that obstructed his vision. That explained the constant headaches and clumsiness he experienced as a child, which landed him the nicknames “pendejo” and “huevo,” slurs equivalent to calling someone an idiot.
Upon moving back to New York City to attend Columbia University in the late 1970s, Faillace learned how to get around by taking lessons from an organization called Lighthouse International, which escorted him and a group of other blind people through the main stations of Manhattan and taught them where turnstiles, entrances, platforms, and staircases were located. He learned how to move on his own which he could do with relative ease in this city—one that exists on a grid and is packed with passersby. Having people around to help was essential, then, and still is today. Faillace can shout out, “Excuse me! What is the address of this building?” and surely someone will answer.
But what about blind citizens living in cities that are less populated? What happens to those who don’t have a bustling public transportation system or sidewalks filled with helpful pedestrians, or who must rely on cars or traveling by foot to get around?
In the past three years especially, technology that helps the blind navigate through their communities without assistance from others has blossomed. The emergence of apps such as Sendero GPS LookAround and BlindSquare are putting tech to work for the visually impaired. These innovations are not only changing the way the blind travel, but also creating a whole new market that still has plenty of room for fine-tuning.
Although blind people do use Android and Windows phones, the iPhone is, far and beyond, the most widely owned mobile device, due in part to an application called VoiceOver, which comes equipped on iOS devices. When Faillace says he has sound, he’s referring to features like VoiceOver, a gesture-based screen reader that speaks as the user moves his or her finger, dictating what appears on the screen through multi-touch capabilities. Siri is another feature that frees up having to type. Voice commands let the user schedule meetings, make phone calls, and look up the nearest brunch spot with chicken and waffles, all in just a few breaths.
One key piece of technology comes in the form of Sendero products, which are not apps, but rather based on specialized accessible software using commercial hardware. Cofounder Michael May, who launched Sendero in 1999 and is now the President of Sendero Group, says the company doesn’t make the hardware, but does develop the core software of six GPS products, including Sense Nav and Seeing Eye GPS on iPhone. May, who is blind himself, said he used to grow frustrated with asking passerby where he was when he got lost. Though this traditional method is used by many blind people, like Faillace, it has obvious drawbacks even when there is someone to ask for assistance.
“They try to tell you, but sometimes, they’re wrong,” May says. “Then you’re standing on a corner, asking for directions, asking what stores you’re walking by. I thought, ‘I’d like to know what’s around, what I’m passing.’” While May worked on developing the app, particularly from 1994 to 2000, GPS was not readily accessible to the public. But when former president Bill Clinton gave the United States military the OK to stop obscuring satellite signals, citizens were allowed to use GPS and navigation freely. This made it possible for Sendero to come out “kicking and screaming,” according to May.
Sendero, which is the core software behind six GPS products, including BrailleNote and Mobile Geo/Adventure, is a talking map that holds highly specific information about the shapes of intersections and locations of businesses. In May’s opinion, it’s life-changing software that lets the blind lead the way instead of taking a back seat.
For Anna Dresner, a writer and technical support provider at the National Library Service who is visually impaired, getting about requires not one but several apps, even if she’s making a short one-destination trip. As of yet, there isn’t a single app available that is able to address everything she needs when she is out and about. Apple Maps, for example, is helpful as a base guide for directions but it doesn’t, say, alert her of her physical surroundings while she’s on the move.
One of the best applications she uses for mobility is BlindSquare, a self-voicing GPS app for the visually impaired that announces intersections and points of interest. BlindSquare works with FourSquare, so popular restaurants, cafés, stores, and other businesses that user often check into are flagged. This gives blind users an incredible amount of autonomy, as they don’t have to ask fellow pedestrians which shops or landmarks they’re passing. BlindSquare lets them know.
Ilkka Pirttimaa, the head developer for mobile apps at BlindSquare, had the idea for the technology when he realized the degree to which sighted people used maps to identify landmarks. BlindSquare, which uses OpenStreetMaps to identify house numbers, street names, and crosswalks outdoors, also works with iBeacon technology indoors.
iBeacon is wireless technology powered by Bluetooth that transmits signals to smartphones—iPhone 4 or later and Android 4.3 and above—when they’re nearby. The technology is perhaps best known for its use in marketing purposes to enhance shoppers’ in-store experiences, but it has other exciting uses that could make the world a safer place to navigate. Take, for instance, the video below, in which beacon technology is used to alert a blind pedestrian of an oncoming electric car with a silent motor:
BlindSquare works with headphones made by a company called AfterShokz, which are worn around the head and have two points of contact above the ears. A vibration conveys sound to the inner ear, so that none of the outside noise that might be advantageous for a blind person—say, to hear an approaching car—is removed.
“One thing that’s clear to all of us, is if we’re blind, we rely on other senses,” Nevin says. “And one of the key senses for the blind is hearing.”
Now that they’ve developed a product that works well outdoors, Nevin and Pirttimaa are currently focusing their efforts on the development of indoor GPS technology. Dresner says this is a game-changer.
“I know a lot of people are working on indoor, but the problem is, there aren’t a lot of technologies yet for telling you what’s around,” she says. “With outdoor navigation, [companies like] Google have been collecting street data for years, and there seem to be standards for people who use points of interest, which also collect huge amounts of data. For indoor, I don’t think there is a standard yet.”
“I think indoor is very important,” Pirttimaa adds. “One of my friends, when she is outdoors, she feels like she can see, but when she comes indoors, she is blind again. We need to start changing this notion.”
Certain airports and indoor malls, including SFO in San Francisco and Itis shopping mall in Helsinki, are also trying to solve the problem of indoor navigation with beacon technology. At the latter location, the user receives information about where he or she is whenever iBeacon systems are detected by the user’s device. That information might include measurements in units of meters or feet, as well as directional orientation. The technology also alerts the user to details of the terrain such as tricky doors—such as whether they are they on the left or right, or if they’re automatic—and the intersections of corridors. The shape of the floor plan is additionally announced to the user, who can know if he or she is approaching an additional feature to navigate, say, a diagonal intersection, or an escalator.
Public transportation is another focal point for the developers, who are creating what’s called Transit App within the BlindSquare application. Transit App looks up public transportation connections in the United States and internationally, after enough users nominate a certain area to be supported. Specific instructions are spoken, so that the user can look up bus or subway lines going in different directions and also use the technology to plan his or her route. There are still limitations, however, in that a single app doesn’t fulfill all of a user’s needs. Some users say that they use Transit App to get on and off the bus, then pull up a third party map application to re-orient themselves, then hop back into BlindSquare to hear what’s nearby.
Technology solutions for the visually impaired still a long way to go, not only in terms of detail and integration, but also when it comes to funding. Lack of sponsorship can stop app development in its tracks. Four out of five apps are not profitable, especially for the blind, simply because they are produced for a small demographic and niche market. Adding to funding troubles are those of potential users themselves—nearly 70% of blind Americans are unemployed.
“iPhones aren’t cheap,” May says. “If you’re low-income and blind, you might be motivated to have the technology, but you don’t have a way of acquiring it whenever you want. Devices can be up to $2,000, and much more than that.”
These days, Michael Faillace goes to the Apple store inside Grand Central Station once a week to meet with instructors at the Genius Bar who show him new apps and ways to use his smartphone to his advantage. How blind people get around is ultimately a matter of personal preference.
Yet use of technology is also a reflection of the times. Despite the fact that Faillace and so many others were taught to ask around, count blocks, or were assigned a guide dog and a walking stick, there’s space in the future for the blind community to use technology applications to give them a certain kind of independence that didn’t previously exist. Whether that technology is used on its own or integrated with traditional methods, the world is opening up in new ways for the visually impaired.