More on Mainstream GPS Solutions

Continuing in my search for a mainstream GPS solution, I started looking into freeware, shareware and other very low cost solutions.  To begin with, programs selling for a few bucks or distributed freely likely cannot include a speech synthesizer as Microsoft SAPI support on Windows Mobile devices is incomplete and, at least through WM5 MS does not include a synthesizer.  

Thus, a $30 product, like VITO SmartMap from Vito Technologies has no value for a blind user as it has a purely visual display.  Interestingly, Vito SmartMap uses all vector graphics for its mapping solutions and sells maps of entire continents for $4 per continent.  I have no idea how complete the maps from Vito are but starting with a set of vector maps would make conversion to SVG far easier than with bitmaps which, in turn, can be rendered as a tactile map on a View Plus Tiger or other embosser.  To this end, I sent an email to Vito Technology to see if we might be able to gain access to their maps to use as the data for a tactile map project that someone might like doing.

The next stop on my search for an off-the-shelf solution brought me to a list of 17 Freeware GPS Solutions for Windows Mobile Smartphone.  The link I provide brings you directly to the Windows Mobile Smartphone GPS page.  This site, however, has literally thousands of programs in dozens of different categories for portable devices, including WM 2003, WM5, WM6 (although I don’t know of any WM6 devices for sale yet) and Symbian.  I will be revisiting this site to find more programs that work with Mobile Speak Smartphone but anyone who has a WM or Symbian device (including PAC Mate) with a screen reader installed should check out this site if you want to find all sorts of stuff that might work for you.

As I explored the site further, though, I learned that they actually have 3 GPS programs listed and about 14 or 15 other Smartphone applications that somehow got miscategorized into the GPS section.  I didn’t look at the process one goes through to list a product on this site so I don’t know why GPS came up with so many false positives.  The bulk of the programs that do not deal with global positioning systems do seem to have something to do with health and/or fitness so maybe there exists another meaning for GPS?

None of the GPS programs I found on this site seem suitable for use by a blind person.  

The first GPS program on the list, however, is called PerDiemCo Location and Tracking.  This program does not provide navigation or mapping instructions at all but, rather, lets you keep others informed of your exact location.  While I don’t think this has much value for a blind user (I didn’t test it for accessibility either), it may serve a good purpose for elders with dementia and others with cognitive impairments who may get lost or badly confused from time to time.  

Oddly, as I searched in the GPS category, I did find that some of the health and fitness programs might interest a blind user.  I haven’t tested any of these for accessibility but the list does include a few programs designed for diabetics which our readers should know has a large cross over with people with vision impairment.  I’d be interested in hearing if anyone has tried these programs with a screen reader on a mobile device and how well they work.

Thus, my search for a GPS solution that I can use on my WM5 Smartphone seems to have come up empty.  None of the open source GPS programs run on WM5 Smartphone devices so I can’t simply tweak something into working under 5 mph.  

I will now broaden my search to include standard Windows Mobile 5 devices like an iPAQ and, if I have time, I’ll try out some WM 2003 programs also on an iPAQ I have available to me.  

There is an open source Symbian GPS solution designed for blind users called Loadstone.  I might dust off my Nokia 6600 to give it a test drive.  I have heard anecdotally that the maps used by Loadstone come from the US Census Department and contain huge missing pieces of some areas.  There are a few online, “open source” map databases that volunteers fill in with data as they discover empty patches.  For people who live in places where these databases have pretty solid maps, they could provide a low cost mapping solution.  

If someone wanted to build a web server side GPS navigation solution for blind users, google maps provides a very solid API but, even for users who have unlimited data packages on their cell phones, google might be a difficult solution for making an application that runs on the handset as I haven’t found SOAP wrappers for google maps which would mean someone would need to perform the tedious task of generating such.

So, why do the otherwise accessible GPS solutions contain the 5 mph minimum speed for positional accuracy?

Virtually none of the GPS solutions I tested seem to pay attention to WAAS encoding.  WAAS provides much more accurate positional information than does traditional GPS.  WAAS, however, has a few major problems.  First, the WAAS system only exists over the United States, a bit of Southern Canada and Northern Mexico.  Thus, any GPS software vendor who wants to sell their products internationally cannot rely on this system.  Secondly, even in the US, a system cannot always count on the availability of WAAS signals as the US government can optionally turn the system off for national security purposes.  

WAAS, when it is available, consistently provides 1 meter accuracy.  This is good enough for a pedestrian who is paying attention to his whereabouts.  Standard NMEA GPS can, if enough satellites can be found by the receiver and there is little distortion in the satellite signals (tall buildings, mountains, canyons, thick cloud cover can all distort signals) also provide 1-2 meter accuracy but, unless the user is on water or in the middle of a field on a sunny day, such perfection rarely exists.

Most map data is also far less detailed than GPS, with or without WAAS, is accurate.  For instance, a map data source like Microsoft’s MapPoint (one of the very best) contains the GPS points of every intersection in its coverage areas but addresses in the middle of a block are calculated through interpolation.  So, when I wrote some test code for an open source GPS program that I may release that I’m currently calling “Freeway GPS” that used Microsoft’s MapPoint as its data source, I would get four addresses returned through the MapPoint SOAP interface when standing in my own front yard.  Using various heuristics, like calculating the distance from my exact GPS point to that of each of the addresses returned, my program could fairly well guess which address was closest to my actual location.  Unfortunately, because the addresses are calculated through interpolation, it was impossible to get my actual address and, often, the result would be a address that didn’t actually exist but, rather, stood between two real homes.  

For a map database to be truly accurate to every specific address, it would need to contain a bounding box for every separate address in its coverage area.  Thus, every spot in the map would require a polygon with at least four vertices into which one would need to calculate whether or not a GPS point falls.  This would be both processor intense and require an enormous amount of data on the server.  In turn, the extra processing and database hits would slow the system down to a point that anything moving even as fast as a bicycle might be well past the location reported.  As, to make any real money, GPS systems must work for motorists, rapid response is essential.

For these technical and economic reasons plus the lack of reliability in the WAAS system, truly pedestrian friendly GPS programs may still be left to the AT companies and the high priced AT market as leveraging the extra effort would be difficult to justify for a mainstream company.


I don’t understand the science of attention well enough to comment on the ideas that Will Pearson posted yesterday.  Even if I am distracted by a speech system, I still think I would like a GPS navigation program that I could easily carry with me.  I’ll pay extra hard attention not to walk into obstacles while listening to directions from the software.

J. J. posted a link to another GPS program for Windows Mobile 5.  As it does not have a Smartphone edition, I will take a look at it when I start to survey PDA solutions along with Mobile Speak Pocket.

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Mainstream GPS Products, Part 1

     Ever since I acquired my T-Mobile DASH Windows Mobile 5 Smartphone and installed Code Factory’s Mobile Speak Smartphone (MSS) it has, for many purposes, taken on the role of my favorite piece of accessible technology.  If you search this blog for previous mentions of MSS or Code Factory’s other products, like MSP for PDA units, you will find that I really enjoy a lot of their product features and, of course, the philosophy of running on off-the-shelf hardware.  If you look back at these earlier Blind Confidential posts, you can read specifically why I find the products so enamoring but, in a nutshell, size (my PDA is under 6 ounces, my T-Mobile Smartphone is under 4 ounces), price (PDA under $300, Smartphone, $250 plus the cost of the screen reader) and flexibility (lots of off-the-shelf software and peripherals available for these devices that work out-of-the-box with the Mobile Speak line of products).

I wanted to use a GPS program on my Smartphone so I could better navigate around my area while walking with my guide dog and because I think such gadgetry is cool.  My philosophy, learned from years of working on JAWS, favors finding off-the-shelf software and hardware and, perhaps, writing scripts for the screen reader to better enable it to work with commercial software.  To this end, I started doing a survey of off-the-shelf GPS programs for WM5 Smartphones.  

Inspired by a post on the MSP mailing list, I started by ordering a copy of Copilot Live from ALK Technologies.  Some other MSP users report having success with this software on their PDA devices so I thought it worthwhile to try out the Smartphone edition.  The software, which does not have a downloadable demo, costs $149 plus shipping and comes, with maps of all of North America, on a pair of CDs.  To start with, the installation process is an accessibility nightmare.  With help from my wife Susan, we managed to get the software and the maps onto the device.

I started testing Copilot Live inside my house and without a GPS unit attached to my Smartphone.  To my amazement, absolutely everything that contained text read perfectly out-of-the-box.  I changed the settings to request directions for a pedestrian and Copilot Live generated maps for me that avoided all major highways, ignored one-way streets and did a terrific job of creating walking directions.  Copilot Live has an “itinerary” view which provides an editable list of streets one will travel as an alternative to the visual maps which, of course, reads perfectly with MSS.

I then took my Smartphone outside along with a Blue Tooth GPS receiver I bought off of ebay for about $70.  Copilot Live recognized and paired with my device as soon as it found and fixed on satellites.  I could read the GPS coordinates the number of satellites it had found and other interesting bits of information that the software could find in its map information when attached to a GPS unit.  I used the Copilot Live “this place” command and it found my home address which, as I was standing in my front yard showed very good accuracy.

Next, I had Copilot create a route for me to a known place a few blocks from my house.  I put the dog in his harness and selected the “start walking” option from the Copilot menu.  At this point, frustration starts setting in.  I followed the itinerary but received no voice prompts from the software.  I walked back home and called ALK technical support and they informed me that, in pedestrian mode, they do not give voice prompts.  I went back outside and selected the “start driving” option from the menu and started walking the same route only to find that I still didn’t get voice prompts.  I walked back home and called Kevin, now becoming my friend at ALK technical support; he checked with his boss and then told me that the software doesn’t give voice prompts when the GPS unit is moving less than 5 miles per hour.  I then gave up and put the software back into its box to send it back for a refund.

If a blind user wants to use a GPS program to generate directions and doesn’t care about prompts while walking, Copilot Live serves as a nice and very accessible, cost effective solution.  For blind people who mostly ride in a car and want to ensure that a cab driver isn’t ripping them off or to help their driver with directions, Copilot Live is a nice solution.  If, however, you are like me and want voice prompts while walking, you can pass on this one entirely.

I next went to take a look at Destinator/Smartphone.  Destinator is the software at the heart of Freedom Scientific’s StreetTalk GPS solution for the PAC Mate so I assumed they would have some understanding of accessibility.  I read all about their Smartphone product on their web site but couldn’t find a downloadable demo.  So, I called their technical support people to ask about the major problem I had with Copilot.  The friendly young woman who answered the phone said, “No, we don’t work very well under five miles per hour.  Our pedestrian mode isn’t very good.”  I chose not to order the software in order to avoid needing to return it.

I next went to the Wayfinder web site and downloaded the 10 day demo for their Smartphone version.  At CSUN, Wayfinder announced that they would soon release Wayfinder/Access for Symbian phones and that it would work with Mobile Speak from Code Factory.  Although I own a Symbian phone, I don’t use it as I prefer the Windows Mobile platform.  Also, Wayfinder/Access is estimated to cost something like $550 when released and the standard Wayfinder/Navigator for all of the platforms they support costs only €149, so I thought I should at least try the Smartphone version.

As a slight aside, I find that Windows Mobile Smartphone software products tend to work well with MSS out-of-the-box more often than PDA programs work with MSP or PAC Mate or desktop programs work with Window-Eyes or JAWS.  One major characteristic of WM/Smartphone programs is that every user, sighted, blind or otherwise, must operate the software using the keys on the phone.  Thus, virtually everything can be accessed from the keyboard by default.  Also, because WM/Smartphone devices tend to have a limited amount of memory, authors of such software tend to avoid custom controls and such to keep their footprint to a minimum.

Thus, with the general knowledge that WM/Smartphone programs tend to be accessible, I downloaded the WM/Smartphone version of Wayfinder to give it a spin.  The installation went smoothly but, when I started running the software on my T-Mobile DASH, few things read properly.  I showed the screen to my wife who said, “This software isn’t accessible for sighted people, it’s blue on blue with a blue highlight.”  After an email exchange with the people at Wayfinder, I learned that their Smartphone software is for Windows Mobile 2003 and, although they have WM5 software for the PDA, they haven’t done it for Smartphone yet.  This little fact isn’t mentioned on their web site anywhere.  So, I’ll put the Wayfinder investigation on hold until they catch up to the OS on my phone.

I moved onto Mapopolis/Navigator which has a downloadable demo and downloadable maps.  The Mapopolis web site isn’t entirely intuitive but, with a bit of poking around, I got everything downloaded.  The installation of the software and maps went smoothly and I went on to explore the interface.  Mapopolis uses some combination of standard and custom controls.  According to its FAQ, if one is using a WM5 device that employs Microsoft’s Blue Tooth driver, you cannot auto-detect your GPS unit.  The dialogue where one enters the information to help the software talk to a GPS unit does not talk properly with MSS and, after a bunch of frustrating tries, I learned that, even with help from a sighted person, that the combination of my phone, my no-name GPS device and this software would never cooperate.  I gave up trying when I read on their web page that they could not provide accuracy greater than 50 meters when trying to say where one is standing.

The next product in my investigation is called Route 66.  It has no downloadable demo and correspondence with their technical support people said they also do not work well at pedestrian speeds.  I moved on.

The last product I’ve tested so far is called GPS Utilities from Efficasoft.  This one has the major advantage of costing only $17.95; its major downside is that it is completely useless for a blind user.  GPS Utilities displays maps as scrolling bitmaps and has no speech output.  The interface reads nicely so one can plan a route with a screen reader but cannot follow it.  Needless to say, in spite of a very polite note from their technical support team, this product cannot be recommended for use by blind people.

There are about 20 more WM/Smartphone GPS products I’ve yet to try so look forward to a part two to this story in the coming weeks.  For now, I would have to say that none of those programs I tested are ready for prime time use by us blinks.  Copilot Live comes the closest but the search will continue.  I do not know whether or not Trecker, from Humanware, works on either a Smartphone or on a PDA with MSP but it does work very well on mainstream hardware.  Of course, Trecker is vastly more expensive than any of the mainstream products I’ve tried so far which is, of course, the result of it being a blind guy ghetto product.

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AT News of the Weird

Here are perfectly peculiar yarns about possibly reliable information leaked from observers of likely sources during a year since the last time I posted such an article.

GW Micro Acquires Microsoft – Renaming the company GW Microsoft.  In a rare Saturday press conference, Doug Geoffray, CEO of the new GW Microsoft, said, “We got the government contract to provide blindness products to veterans from the Bush Administration and spent the profits buying Microsoft.”

In an unrelated move, the National Federation of the Blind announced it would acquire Humidware for an undisclosed amount of money.  Curtis Chong, CEO of the new venture immediately hired Moes Jonathonson from Freeman Scientology to run the operation.  Said Jonathonson, “I get to return to the Humidware products I’ve always loved and now, with all of the secrets I learned at FS, I may actually be able to think up some unique new products to add to the line.”

Freedom Scientific Run by Space Aliens, Says Secret NASA Documents.  In heavily redacted reports received through the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), top NASA ufologists show proof that executives who have joined FS since the merger all come from the planet Aragonicle.

Code Factory announces Mobile Speak Sharp Shooter (MSSS).  “It’s the first ever screen reader for portable weapons,” says Irja Gurds, Director of Sales.

In a move to counter the NFB acquisition of Humidware, ACB announces purchase of CBS, Jeff Bishop to run news department.

AI^2 announces new magnifier for Macintosh.  “We feel competing with ‘free’ is a good business model,” says company spokesman.

SerenityTech announces new open source screen reader for gnome desktop.  “Three’s company too…” sang Michael Bald at press conference.

Kurzweil announces age of telepathic computing.  “No more need for screen readers as it interacts directly with your thoughts,” says the legendary futurist.  In a move the help the product take off, KESI will release a set of “Fantasyware” hardware adaptations but have not yet released specifications other than the brief, “Sex sells,” statement from an engineer insisting on anonymity.

Blind Christian, Gonz Blinko, Samhara and the gang were seen boarding an aircraft bound for New York.  “My wife will meet us there,” is all that BC would say publicly.

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