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.